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Stanley Cup Finals : Acton Goes From North Stars to Playoff Star

Times Staff Writer

Keith Acton scored the game-winning goal Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup championship series, and life was never like this with the Minnesota North Stars.

As he is discovering, maybe that wasn’t so bad.

“Not you guys, again,” he said Thursday as a group of reporters surrounded him after practice. “I’m getting a headache.”

Acton was the reluctant center of attention after his re-direction of a shot by Steve Smith had been the difference in the Edmonton Oilers’ 2-1 victory over the Boston Bruins.

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Acton never expected to be in that position, having spent three full seasons and the first half of this one with the lowly North Stars.

But the falling Stars, in the process of compiling the worst record in the National Hockey League, apparently concluded that if they were going to lose anyway, they might as well lose with younger players.

Acton, 30, was traded to the Oilers in January.

Glen Sather, the Oilers’ coach and general manager, had been fond of the defense-minded center since the spring night seven years ago when the upstart Oilers completed a three-game sweep of a playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens, whose roster included a rookie named Keith Acton.

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“I went over to shake his hand, and he was heartbroken,” Sather said. “It showed how much he cared. He’s a tremendous competitor.”

Competitiveness aside, Acton wasn’t used by Sather in the Oilers’ playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets or the Calgary Flames, or in the first three games of the Campbell Conference finals against the Detroit Red Wings.

“Even then, I’d come into the dressing room early in the morning and he’d already have been working out for an hour,” Sather said.

Still, Acton was frustrated.

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Said teammate Kevin Lowe: “I remember he walked up to Sather early in the playoffs, when he wasn’t playing, and said, ‘I don’t want you to think I’m happy not playing because I’m not. I want to play, but I’m going to keep a smile on my face and maintain a positive attitude.’ ”

Acton finally got his chance in Game 4 of the Detroit series.

“We felt we needed more speed on our fourth line, and he certainly gives us that because he’s got great legs,” Oiler co-Coach John Muckler said.

Acton also has scored two important goals. His other game-winner was in the Oilers’ series-clinching 8-4 victory over the Red Wings.

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“He’s the kind of guy we were looking to use in crucial spots,” Sather said. “He’s got great character.”

What he doesn’t have is a lot of size, but the 5-foot 8-inch, 170-pound Acton has always seemed to find a way around that.

When he played in a junior league, in the heyday of the infamous Broad Street Bullies, the Philadelphia Flyers’ championship teams, Acton said he was told that no player weighing less than 170 pounds would be drafted.

Acton strapped weights to his ankles on the day he was to be weighed by the NHL’s Central Scouting service. When a scout arrived to find Acton in bell-bottom pants, Acton explained that he was late for an appointment and asked if he could be weighed first.

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The scale registered his weight at 171 pounds, and Acton was on his way.

“He’s always played bigger than he is,” Lowe said. “I know it used to burn his rear end when we’d go into Minnesota and beat them. We’d be up by three goals and he’d be trying to run (Wayne) Gretzky or (Mark) Messier.”

At times, though, Acton felt his desire waning. The Canadiens, who were the beneficiaries during the 1981-82 season when Acton scored a career-high 36 goals and added a career-high 52 assists, traded him to Minnesota less than a month into the 1983-84 season.

The North Stars reached the Campbell Conference final in 1984, but have fallen on hard times since.

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“Losing and losing takes the fun out of the game,” Acton said. “It becomes a job, instead of fun. You still have to have a little bit of the kid in you to play this game.”

In Edmonton, Acton seems to have regained the spark, as recalled Thursday by John Davidson, a former New York Rangers goaltender who is working this series as a commentator for a Canadian television network.

Davidson said he once had a minor run-in with Acton in the American Hockey League. A few months later, before a game at Montreal, Davidson was crouched in front of the net when suddenly a spray of ice splashed across his face.

When he cleared his eyes, Davidson saw his tormentor.

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“Me, again,” said Acton.

The Bruins got the same message Wednesday night.

Hockey Notes

Rejean Lemelin will be the starting goaltender for the Boston Bruins tonight in Game 2 at the Northlands Coliseum. Lemelin is 11-4 in the playoffs with a league-leading 2.45 goals-against average. He was benched for Game 1, however, in favor of former Oiler Andy Moog. Moog played well, but Bruin Coach Terry O’Reilly said: “Reggie is ready to go and he has done the lion’s share of the work that got us here in the first place.”

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Lemelin’s record against the Oilers is 6-20-4, including 5-19-3 when he played for the Calgary Flames. Lemelin, though, said the circumstances are different. “We were a rebuilding team, absolutely no competition for the Oilers,” he said of the Flames. “We almost knew we couldn’t beat them because they were so much better than us.”

The Kings made a bid for Moog before he went to Boston, offering defenseman Jay Wells, goaltender Rollie Melanson and a draft choice, but Oiler General Manager Glen Sather told Edmonton reporters that the deal fell through because Rogie Vachon, the Kings’ general manager, was indecisive. Moog went to Boston in a deal that brought Geoff Courtnall and Bill Ranford to Edmonton.


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