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One season later, it's Oilers-Stars II

With the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs over, the Dallas Stars have lopped one head off the playoff monster that has dogged them since a grisly Game 7 overtime loss in last year's opening round.

Now comes the other, an Edmonton squad that became the 14th team to overcome a 3-1 series to eliminate Colorado in the opening round.

The Stars know that upset feeling, having been harpooned by the Oilers in one of last year's huge playoff surprises. Now they're hoping for vengeance. The semifinals series begins Thursday in Dallas.

"It really gives us a chance to redeem ourselves, to beat them," Stars right wing Pat Verbeek said. "The monkey is off our back, but we feel we've got a lot to prove."

Namely, that they're the same team who took the best record in the regular season and the top seed in the Western Conference _ along with the obligatory burden to beat the lower-seeded teams in the playoffs.

"I think the favorite status went out the window with injuries to (Joe) Nieuwendyk and some other people," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said of his battered team.

Nieuwendyk, the Stars' top regular-season scorer, is out for the season because of a knee injury.

The Oilers have added Janne Niinimaa and Roman Hamrlik, young and fast defenders with an offensive upside. The defense still plays in front of streaky Edmonton goaltender Curtis Joseph, who like last year happens to be riding a blazing streak.

Colorado was scoreless the final 163 minutes, 23 seconds of the series. Joseph stopped 82 consecutive shots in Games 5-7.

"I prefer not to even talk about the opposing goaltender," Hitchcock said.

Back in Edmonton, the Oilers' sale was completed, one week after the league approved the $70-million (U.S. currency) deal, Economic Development Edmonton said. The 36-member ownership includes a glass distribution company, construction contractors, an automobile dealership owner and the Edmonton Journal _ the city's largest daily newspaper

CANADIENS-SABRES: Andy Moog calls it a "great challenge" to match goaltending skills with Dominik Hasek.

Like the rest of the Montreal Canadiens, he doesn't want the acrobatic Buffalo Sabres goaltender to become an obsession in their impending NHL playoff series.

"That's a pretty fair hockey team we're playing," Moog said. "We have to worry about getting to Hasek, then think about how to beat him.

"I think that might have been Philadelphia's problem."

Hasek allowed only nine goals in five games as the Sabres beat the favored Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the first round. He leads playoff goaltenders with a 1.77 goals-against average and sterling .949 save percentage.

Moog had a 2.29 average and a .912 save percentage as the Canadiens ousted the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. The best-of-7 Eastern Conference semifinal begins Friday night in Buffalo.

DEVILS: Jacques Lemaire should know by the end of the week whether he wants to return as coach of the New Jersey Devils.

Lemaire held a brief telephone conference call to apologize for giving an interview with a newspaper on Monday after refusing to speak with the media earlier in the day as the team cleaned out its lockers.

In the one-on-one interview, Lemaire criticized the media for personal attacks on him in the wake of the Devils' stunning first-round elimination by Ottawa. It marked the second straight year that New Jersey has been eliminated early in the playoffs after finishing with the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference.

PLAYOFF TV RATINGS FALL: The Fox network's ratings for the opening week of the playoffs dropped 10 percent from last year. With four regional games in the playoffs' first week, News Corp. unit Fox drew a 1.8 rating, its lowest playoff rating since 1995, down from last year's 2.0 in the opening week.

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