DALLAS -- The Dallas Stars nearly cruised back into the Stanley Cup finals. Instead, the Colorado Avalanche made them earn it.
Sergei Zubov and Mike Modano scored on the power play in the first period as Dallas built a three-goal lead, then withstood a Colorado rally that lasted to the closing seconds for a 3-2 victory in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals Saturday night.
''It was an unbelievable series,'' Stars forward Brett Hull said. ''It could have gone either way. I'm just thankful we got kind of lucky at end and held on.''
The defending champions will open the finals Tuesday night in New Jersey. The Devils overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Stars dominated the first period and led 3-0 in the second after Roman Lyashenko blindly kicked in a rebound. Dallas was 10-0 this postseason when taking a lead into the third period and the only question seemed to be whether goalie Ed Belfour could hold the shutout.
Then Peter Forsberg beat him for a shorthanded goal 5:25 into the final period. Three minutes later, Milan Hejduk redirected a shot by Ray Bourque past Belfour to bring back the tension that had been missing since the first period.
Colorado only got three more shots at Belfour before going to an open net with 1:20 left. The extra skater didn't help, though, as Belfour made a series of saves with 21.2 seconds to go, then Ray Bourque's shot hit Belfour and clanged off the right post with eight seconds left.
''We had a bit of luck of on our side,'' Modano said.
The Stars knocked the loose puck to the other end of the ice, triggering a postgame celebration that was filled with as much relief as joy.
The tight finish was a better reflection of the first six games of the series that put the team into a winner-plays-for-the-Cup finale for the second straight year. Dallas won last year's duel 4-1.
This was the third straight year the Avalanche have been eliminated in a seventh game.
''We played good enough in this series to win,'' Colorado forward Dave Andreychuk said. ''We didn't get the bounces, especially in this game. It's hard to explain the way the bounces go.''
Said defenseman Aaron Miller: ''I don't think anyone in this room wants to analyze this right now.''
The Stars blew a chance to end the series in Game 6, although they knew the 2-1 loss was one of their best performances of the postseason. They seemed to pick up where they left off by scoring on their first two power play chances.
Colorado's never overcame that hole, ending their near-storybook quest to get Bourque the first championship of his 20-year career.
His arrival from Boston in March had sparked the Avs down the stretch.
In the end, the storyline that played out best was the challenge between Belfour and counterpart Patrick Roy.
Belfour said late in the season that he was as good as Roy or better, then backed it up in the series. Although Roy had two shutouts, Belfour never allowed more than two goals in a game and was a steadying influence for his team. Fans cast their ballot by chanting ''Ed-die's bet-ter!'' in the final period.
Zubov got Dallas going 6:36 into the game by beating Roy on a one-timer from the center point just inside the blue line. As the 100th straight sellout at Reunion Arena roared, Roy sat up on his knees and stared ahead in disbelief, then dropped his back to the ice in agony.
Colorado's second penalty was even more devastating, partly because it was silly but mainly because it gave Dallas a great scoring chance with just 16 seconds left in the period.
The culprit was Andreychuk, whom many Stars fans wanted suspended for a concussion-inducing hit on Richard Matvichuk in Game 6. His late hit to the head of Darryl Sydor was whistled for roughing.
Fittingly, it was Matvichuk who started the ensuing goal. He fed Modano in front of the net and his shot ticked off Roy's glove and sailed just inside the left post.
Modano raised his arms and head to the roof and was met in the corner by all four teammates. The four Avalanche skaters stiffly drifted up the ice several feet apart, while Roy stood motionless in the goal. The hometown horn operator pushed the button so long it seemed to be jammed.
Five minutes into the second period, Lyashenko scored a weird one. Derian Hatcher drilled a shot from the right point that hit teammate Mike Keane's backside and bounced in off Lyashenko's foot while he was facing away from the net.
''The first half of the game, I thought our passion was unbelievable,'' Stars coach Ken Hitchcock. ''Then we got a little sloppy and gave them that first goal. That gave them some momentum and they built on that.''
Colorado had nothing early. The Avs didn't get a shot on goal on its first two power plays and went 0-for-3 on the night. They failed to score on their final 17 power plays of the series.
Another likely target for Colorado fans is Joe Sakic, who didn't have a goal against Dallas and had only two in the 17 playoff games.
Belfour, who made 31 saves, won for the eighth straight time following a Dallas loss. He improved to 4-0 in Game 7s and 9-1 in elimination games for the Stars. He also has won 11 of his last 12 playoff games in Reunion Arena dating to last season's finals.
He won't get a chance to add to that until Saturday. First, he'll have to go to Continental Airlines Arena for games Tuesday and Thursday. The Stars went 2-0 against the Devils this season, winning 2-1 in overtime at home in November and 3-2 on the road in March.
Roy, who made 26 saves, fell to 2-5 in Game 7s. It was the fourth straight he's lost and the third year in a row that Colorado's season ended that way.
Modano's goal was his ninth, tying Hull for the postseason lead. He also assisted on Zubov's goal, giving him 19 playoff points, one less than Hull.
Dallas again played without Jamie Langenbrunner, who injured his knee in the opening period of Game 5. His status for the finals is uncertain.
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