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A Bright Future

by J. Douglas Foster / Dallas Stars

Monday’s Game Six was kind of like snorkeling the beautiful waters of the Caribbean, and getting stung by a jellyfish.

When you come home, are you going to focus on the jellyfish? Or will you tell your friends about the crystal clear waters filled with colorful tropical fish, the beautiful sunsets, the fresh mango daiquiris and the smoking hot, scantily clad coeds?

I’m gonna focus on the latter.

Sure, the Red Wings are headed to the Stanley Cup Finals – deservedly so – powered by their 4-1 victory in Game Six, one that earned them a 4-2 series victory in the Western Conference Finals. It was a bitter way for the season to end for the Stars and their fans, but once you’ve dealt with the heartache of the loss, you must, if you really call yourself a fan, look at the upside.

That is, realize where you were: the Western Conference Finals, against one of the two best teams in the world, if not the best. Your team played longer than 27 other teams, and even more importantly, did so not with a collection of aging veterans making one last stab at glory, but with a team that has plenty to build on for next season – and seasons to come – and has the look of a team on the rise, one whose core should be in tact well into the next decade.

While the Red Wings get ready for the Penguins, let’s get ready for the future, and point out the reasons you can continue to “believe,” long after the Stars marketing department has come up with a new slogan for the 2009 postseason.

A: You’ve got the best captain in the NHL. Period. Ask anybody who came within three feet of Brenden Morrow in the postseason, and they’ll tell you that was too close. No, he’s probably not going to score 600 goals, and I can’t imagine him retiring as the second-leading point scorer in NHL history. However, the comparisons to Mark Messier aren’t insane. In fact, they’re pretty darn accurate. If you need proof, pop in a tape of Game 6 of the conference semifinals against San Jose, and see Morrow dominate like few forwards in the NHL can. Better yet, just wake up Milan Michalek and ask him. In the last 12 months or so, we’ve seen Brenden Morrow go from a very good left wing to a dominant power forward in this league. And that’s a statement nobody with good sense can deny.

B: You have a superstar, playoff-tested goaltender. Long gone are the memories of consecutive first-round playoff losses to Colorado. Since last year’s opening round against Vancouver, Marty Turco has a 1.84 postseason goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. He put the Stars on his back in Detroit for Game 5, exorcising his own personal demons in Joe Louis Arena and securing a Game 6 back in Dallas. I’m sure the extra 18,584 tickets and 20,000-plus beers sold didn’t hurt the front office bottom line, and it did even more for those few remaining skeptics who doubted Turco’s ability to win when it counts. I have no doubt he’ll get his ultimate revenge one day, when he takes a long-deserved drink from Lord Stanley’s Cup.

C: When Mike Modano does eventually retire (and we’re certainly not longing for that day), you may just have found his replacement. If Brad Richards isn’t it, then the combination of Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro could very well be. There’s no question this franchise has leaned heavily on Modano to be a dominant player for so very long. After all, guys like him don’t come around very often. But the Stars now have two very dynamic, talented center icemen who are both 28 years of age and both capable of dominating games. How many teams can say that?

D: Yes, the “D” is for  “Defense. There’s little debate that the top two bluelines in the NHL belong to Anaheim and Detroit. And there’s even less debate about the fact the Stars defense outplayed the former – significantly – in the first round of the playoffs without the services of Sergei Zubov, one of the top four defensemen in the world, and without Philippe Boucher. Exactly how could that happen? Well, for starters, because Stephane Robidas has a heart the size of Texas, and could now officially be listed as one of the league’s five most underrated players. And because Mattias Norstrom played like the seasoned veteran he is. And because a group of rookies played far beyond their years, and there is no reason to think that Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Matt Niskanen won’t just get better from here. To say the sky is the limit for this young defensive corps might be an understatement. The moon might be a better shooting point.

E: Intestinal fortitude, which this team has plenty of. Morrow, Robidas and Steve Ott embodied it since the Stars struggled through March and had everyone writing off any chance of playoff success. It started being apparent just how much in the regular season finale, when they refused to let San Jose push them around in a muck-it-up game that the Stars would eventually win. Don’t think that win wasn’t important, especially two weeks later when the Stars faced the Sharks in the playoffs. And if you haven’t noticed, Steve Ott is more than just a jaw-flapper. He’s a gritty, hard-edged guy who has no fear of hitting anybody on the other team, or talking that person into taking a stupid penalty. He’s also more than capable of frustrating an opponent simply by not letting the puck out of their end. We saw some great forechecking by Ott this postseason, and it should continue for years to come.

F: Loui Eriksson, Joel Lundqvist, Toby Petersen, etc. The arrival of Richards helped Eriksson get out of his shell, and he thrived in round one against Anaheim. We can only expect him to get better from here. Lundqvist now has four goals and nine points in his brief playoff career, and like Ott is not afraid of a little body contact. As for Petersen, well, despite not scoring in the postseason, he still showed us quite a bit. He can skate, he can play at the same speed as the Detroit Red Wings and he’s not at all limited by his vertical challenges. Three young players whose best years are still ahead of them.

G: Remember who you didn’t have for this battle with Detroit: Stu Barnes, who has 30 career playoff goals and 11 playoff game winners; Jere Lehtinen, a three-time Selke Trophy winner who had eight points in his 14 playoff games; and Boucher, who logged 19 goals when healthy during the 2006-07 campaign. That’s a lot to miss, and a lot to have back next time you get your shot at the Wings.

I tend to think this year was just a step for the Stars, a step every championship team has to make. You rarely see a team just come out of nowhere from previous seasons and win the Stanley Cup. It’s generally a process, and one that includes establishing yourself as a playoff contender before breaking through to win. I like to think the Stars might be where the Wings were last year – good enough to play with the Cup champions, and just one step away from getting one for themselves. And remember, the last two teams to lose in the Western Conference Finals (Anaheim and Detroit) have gone on to the Cup Finals the following season.

Wait ‘til next year? Hey, I’m ready now. I’ll stand behind this team through any playoff battle, and based on what they showed this year, am comfortable in knowing that they can play with anybody, and that they will not, under any circumstances, give up on themselves. I can’t imagine their fans would give up on them either.

They’ve earned that from you. And they’ve given you plenty of reason to believe.
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