Fresh off a disappointing seven-game loss to the Vancouver Canucks
in the opening round of the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Dallas Stars
entered the 2007-08 campaign with hopes of quickly putting that painful memory behind them.
Instead, things only got worse. Dallas would win just five of 12 games in October, and kicked off November with a 5-0 loss on home ice to the Phoenix Coyotes. It was the Stars’ third straight loss, with all of them coming at American Airlines Center.
“You go 0-for-3 at home, that's rock-bottom for us,'' captain Brenden Morrow said. “This is some of the worst hockey I've seen from this team in a very long time. The panic button hasn't been hit, but the time is now to nip this and move forward.”
Rock-bottom officially arrived Nov. 10 at Los Angeles. The Stars held a 4-0 lead after two periods, only to allow five answered goals to the Kings in the third. Mike Modano scored a power-play goal with 1:05 remaining to send the game to overtime, but Anze Kopitar completed the improbable win for L.A. when he scored 2:34 into the extra session.
"There are a lot of little things that came to a head tonight," Stars goalie Marty Turco said. "This showed a lack of respect for each other."
Stars owner Tom Hicks had seen enough following this latest debacle. Three days later, General Manager Doug Armstrong – who had held the position for five years – was relieved of his duties. He was replaced by two men – Assistant GM Les Jackson and Brett Hull, who was a Special Advisor in the Hockey Operations department.
“Brett Hull and Les Jackson are both people that I know and trust to do a great job and run our hockey club for the remainder of the season,” Hicks said. “They are very good hockey people and know the business well. They have complementary skill sets and successful hockey leadership records.”
The front-office change sent shockwaves through the Stars’ dressing room. Several players felt responsible for Armstrong losing his job after spending close to 17 years with the organization.
“It’s a very surreal day to think about anybody losing their job when you have affected it,” Turco said. “And most recently, we talked it over as players. It’s things we’ve been doing as players that directly or indirectly caused this. Who knows, really?
“It’s certainly a sad day for as long as he’s been here, as a person in the organization, the things he’s seen since this organization has moved cities, built up, and championships. It’s a very sad, surreal day.”
Nonetheless, things began to turn around for Dallas. Following a 4-3 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 14, the Stars would win their next six games.
“It’s the way that we’ve won that has been impressive,” forward Jeff Halpern said after a 3-2 overtime win against the New York Islanders on Nov. 26. “I think the way we’ve been able to get out of our own end and control pucks in the other teams’ ends have been, even if we weren’t winning these games, it’s stuff that you know you can build on. We’re proud of the winning streak, but more proud of the way we’ve been playing.”
December was another solid month for the Stars, as they won four games in a row on two occasions. A 5-4 shootout win against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 29 had Dallas three points up on the San Jose for the Pacific Division lead. Afterward, though, Stars coach Dave Tippett was unhappy with seeing his team involved in a see-saw affair.
"Points are fine, but we have to play much better than that,” Tippett said. “We snuck one out tonight, but we'll have to play better."
Tippett was on to something, as Dallas would lose its next four games. They were shut out on home ice in back-to-back games for the first time since 1998. They were blanked for the second time during the skid on Jan. 5, a 3-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
“Losing four in a row makes you feel not-so-good about yourselves,” Morrow said. “That was a good hockey team we played today, but we didn’t push it hard enough to beat them. We didn’t win the battles and get to the pucks in the crease. We wanted to get back to defending well and playing to our strengths, and I thought we did that early, but in the end we didn’t get to the scoring areas that we needed to.”
Things turned around for Dallas just a few weeks later. A 4-3 win at Vancouver turned out to be the start of a seven-game winning streak, which lasted through a 2-1 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes on Feb. 11. Dallas allowed more than two goals only twice during the impressive run.
The win against Phoenix extended the Stars’ lead to six points over the Sharks. San Jose, however, had five games in hand.
"The other teams in our division have put the pressure on us to win, and our expectations to keep winning are still there every night, especially with the games-in-hand and the tightness of the conference," Turco said.
Another defining moment of the Stars’ season came on Feb. 26 – just three days after a 6-3 win against Nashville put them six points ahead in the Pacific. Looking to make a splash at the trade deadline, Jackson and Hull sent forwards Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen, goaltender Mike Smith and a fourth-round draft pick in 2009 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for forward Brad Richards and goalie Johan Holmqvist.
“We are thrilled to acquire Brad Richards, a top-line talent who can play with any combination of line-mates,” Hull said. “His Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the 2004 playoffs shows he is capable of great things in the postseason. He is certainly a major addition to our group.”
Richards made an immediate impact, notching five assists in a 7-4 win against the Chicago Blackhawks at American Airlines Center. It was the Stars’ fourth straight victory.
“It’s an exciting start, I was so nervous and I wanted so badly to fit in and keep this thing going,” Richards said. “It feels good that I came in and we didn’t get a loss. We got a win and that’s the main thing. It’s a lot of fun to play with these guys.”
But March didn’t bring as much good fortune, as the Stars went South, losing nine of 11 games to fall out of the division hunt. A 3-2 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks on March 30 all but assured Dallas that it would not have home-ice advantage in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Stars did, however, clinch a postseason berth that afternoon.
“To be successful and win in the playoffs you have to win on the road so home ice is important but it’s not everything,” veteran forward Mike Modano said. “We’re glad to be in the playoffs and we just want to finish out the regular season on a high note.”