North Stars Haven't Lost the Magic Touch : Stanley Cup finals: Minnesota uses defense and goaltending to win opener from Penguins, 5-4.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another night falls. And so does another favorite.

Another city gets set to party. And another balloon bursts.

Once again, an NHL power rolls out the carpet for the once-lowly Minnesota North Stars only to be rolled off the ice a loser.

The pattern is familiar. Only the stakes have risen.

On Wednesday, it was the opening game of the Stanley Cup finals: Minnesota, in its usual position as an underdog, against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And as in every other playoff series for the North Stars in this most improbable of seasons, they skated off with an opening-game victory, beating Pittsburgh, 5-4, before a Civic Arena sellout crowd of 16,164.

Game 2 will be played in Pittsburgh Friday night.

Considered the no-name, no-chance Stars at the end of the regular season, Minnesota continued its incredible six-week run through the NHL's elite with a formula that has proved unbeatable. Get the lead early, hold onto it with excellent special teams play and then shut off the opposition with tight defense and goaltending.

First, there were the Chicago Blackhawks, No. 1 in the NHL in the regular season. Then, the St. Louis Blues, No. 2. Then, the Edmonton Oilers, the defending Stanley Cup champions.

And now Pittsburgh, the Wales Conference winner with the best club in the Penguins' 24-year history.

"I think a few teams took us lightly," said Jon Casey, who again provided the goaltending for Minnesota. "But Pittsburgh was not one of them. They are very dangerous going to the net."

Dangerous enough to score first. Ulf Samuelsson got his second playoff goal 3:45 into the game, smashing a 55-foot shot from the left side that sailed over Casey's glove.

The yellow-and-black garbed crowd roared, but it was to be the only time the home team would lead all night.

The Penguins had the lead, they outshot the North Stars, 17-9, in the opening period and they had five of the seven power plays in that first 20 minutes.

As a matter of fact, they twice had a two-man advantage Wednesday, but failed to convert on either occasion.

Looking for the cause of their frustration, the Penguins could focus on center Neal Broten. He wasn't hard too find.

Broten was on the penalty-killing squad, twice winning key faceoffs when Pittsburgh had the two-man edge. Broten was on the power play.

And he was in the goal-scoring column twice as well, getting his team on the scoreboard in the first period with his seventh postseason goal and later adding his eighth late in the second period.

"I like playing," said Broten, who was playing for the North Stars a decade ago, when they made their only previous appearance in the finals. "I like being out there whatever I'm doing. I can't do anything on the bench."

That doesn't figure to be a place Broten will spend much time in this best-of-seven series.

His work on the power play was a key as the Penguins were stopped on seven of eight attempts.

That was still better than the North Stars. Minnesota had scored 32 of its previous 65 postseason goals on the power play, but the North Stars were blanked in that category Wednesday.

Sort of.

Although they went zero for five on power plays, the North Stars took a 2-1 first-period lead on a Ulf Dahlen's first postseason goal, scored only four seconds after the end of a power play and before the Penguins could get back into position at full strength.

Mario Lemieux tied the score in the second period on a short-handed goal. His 12th postseason goal extended his goal-scoring streak to six games and his point-scoring string to 14.

But Marc Bureau answered with a short-handed goal of his own, his third goal of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh's Scott Young temporarily tied the score with his first postseason goal, but Broten and Bobby Smith (seventh playoff goal) pushed the North Stars into a 5-3 lead early in the final period.

Pittsburgh's Joe Mullen made it close with his sixth playoff goal at the 10:35 mark of the final period.

But then Minnesota closed down the Penguins, sending only one man into the offensive zone with the rest tending to the anticipated final charge of the Penguins.

It came, but Casey and his defenders would not crack.

So the North Stars have again nullified the home-ice advantage of a club that fared far better than they did in the regular season.

"If somebody had told us we'd be in the finals," Broten said, "I would not have believed it. It shows this team has got some talent, some perseverance, some . . . whatever."

As every playoff opponent will testify, the North Stars have plenty of whatever.

NHL Notes

The Penguins had hoped defenseman Paul Coffey could play despite a broken jaw. If medically cleared, Coffey was going to wear a full facemask for protection. Although Pittsburgh Coach Bob Johnson wouldn't comment on Coffey's status for Game 2, the defensemen told a Pittsburgh television station he didn't expect to play in the first four games. Coffey underwent surgery for the fractured jaw April 21. . . . The Penguins outshot the North Stars, 38-29.

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