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Close but no Cigar

by Staff Writer / Dallas Stars
By John Tranchina

One last look back at seven-game Vancouver series

As the Dallas Stars go their separate ways and disperse to various parts of the world, no doubt some are still reviewing in their minds just what went wrong in their seven-game first-round playoff loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

Because of how incredibly close that series was, and how evenly matched the two teams were, it's tempting to say it was just a bad bounce here, a poor call by the referee there, and the outcome might have been different.

Dallas made a valiant comeback attempt after falling behind three games to one, winning 1-0 in overtime in Game 5 and then shutting out the Canucks 2-0 in a dominant performance in Game 6 at American Airlines Center to tie the series.

They even led 1-0 going into the second period of Game 7, but saw the lead slip away after multiple power plays for Vancouver turned the tide in the Canucks' favor, with Trevor Linden's extra-man goal at the 7:00 mark of the third counting as the eventual game-winner. With Turco on the bench for an extra attacker in the final minute-plus, the Canucks scored two empty net goals to add insult to injury and secure a 4-1 victory.

Now the Canucks are playing Anaheim in round two while the Stars ruminate over what might have been and how close they really were to winning in the first round for the first time since 2003.

Indeed, if Stu Barnes had not been absolutely robbed by Roberto Luongo with 10 minutes to go on his point-blank one-timer from the slot...

Or if Mike Modano's shot had been an inch lower and gone in instead of clanging off the crossbar with just over four minutes to play, Dallas would have tied the game and regained the momentum. Going into overtime, anything could have happened and they very well might have won.

"I was a few inches away from tying it up and I'm going to be picturing that puck hitting the crossbar all summer," Modano said afterwards, echoing the sentiments of many Stars fans.

There are actually several moments like that throughout the course of the series, especially in the games the Stars lost.

There was the crossbar that Barnes hit from almost the same spot late in the second overtime of Game 1, which the Stars eventually lost in the fourth OT period. There was the breakaway chance that Modano had in the second period of Game 3 with the teams scoreless that generated a hooking penalty, but arguably should have been a penalty shot.

And then, of course, there was the shot by Mike Ribeiro with 2:29 left in Game 4 and the Stars trailing by one, that slipped through the pads of Luongo. As the puck trickled behind Luongo and along the goal line, Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell managed to clear it out just before it made it all the way over the line and into the net.

If any one of those go in, it's a different series and the Stars probably advance.

Then there's the surprisingly overzealous refereeing in Game 7 that left the Stars short-handed 10 times in the game, five in the second period. Included among several poor penalties were phantom calls like the one on rookie Joel Lundqvist for high-sticking where his stick didn't come within six inches of hitting the Vancouver player he was battling with.

"We were disappointed in some of the calls that were made," Stars coach Dave Tippett acknowledged. "We just felt like Game 7, the players should dictate the outcome, and I thought a lot of the penalties were soft calls that had very little impact on the game, other than putting one team down. That's just the way it went. We gave up momentum in the game because we took penalties and we could never get it back."

To their credit, the Stars didn't blame the officiating for the loss, noting that they could have and should have taken care of business much earlier in the series or not been in a position to have the penalties impact them so severely, but they didn't deny it made their task much more difficult.

"We just needed that extra goal in Game 7 to get it to two or three, but there was a lot of outside influence that had an impact on that game," Modano said, referring to the officiating. "It was frustrating. You look at it, but then again, you could have worked harder to not even get in that situation. That's how the game's been reffed all year long, but we had times that we had power plays and then nullified them with penalties of our own. Those times in that game in the second period that we took a lot of penalties took the momentum out of the game."

With all that said, the inability of the Stars to score more goals is ultimately what cost them the series. As well as goaltender Marty Turco performed, making outstanding save after outstanding save and registering a 1.30 goals-against average and .952 save percentage, both currently second in the league, as well as an NHL-record-tying three shutouts in one series, one could understand if he was frustrated with his teammates. Dallas was unable to score more than two goals in any single game after Game 1.

"No, they never really put me in a tough spot, that's my job," Turco said of his mates. "I really relished the opportunity in a tight series to make the difference. But we had a lot of chances, and we had some bad bounces, we had some really close plays, Luongo played great. The way they play D, almost 100 percent of their concentration is getting back to their net and blocking shots, and just always being around the net to deny you time and space. I never thought we couldn't score. Obviously, we didn't score as much as we'd like, but they didn't make it easy on us, either."

But even though Luongo played very well for the Canucks, it's hard to ignore that every game the Stars won was by shutout, so whenever Turco allowed a goal, they ended up losing the game. That lack of offense, and the fact that the club's most productive line was the checking line of Barnes, Lundqvist, and Jeff Halpern, received the most attention from players looking back at how the series got away from them.

"We didn't score on them," said captain Brenden Morrow, who tied Halpern and Lundqvist for the team lead in goals with two. "Marty was a difference-maker in that series, we just need to find ways to score. I don't think the answer is just going out and getting a goal scorer, it's bigger than that, but I think the style of hockey we play, the guys that got rewarded in the playoffs were gritty-type players - Lundqvist, Halpern, Barnes, our shutdown line, and they were probably our top scoring line, too."

"As far as our line getting a couple of extra goals, we were playing against a more offensive-orientated line," said Barnes, who tied for the team lead with four points (one goal, three assists). "We created turnovers and maybe took advantage of a line heading in the other direction, maybe worried more about the other end, I don't know. I think the guys battled hard. Mo hits the crossbar. That's hockey. Those guys gave it their all, played both ends. We were, literally, minus the empty netters, we're a goal away from winning it."

Tippett noted that more goals should have been generated by the power play unit, which contributed four goals in the series, but none in the losses in Games 4 and 7 when it could have made a difference.

"There's always things like special teams that come into play that you always feel like you can improve on and try to find some more goals that way," Tippett said. "But both teams, in a series like that that was so close and both teams play strong defense and the goaltending was fantastic, goals were hard to come by."

Stars General Manager Doug Armstrong pointed out, however, that the Canucks were also facing a tough defensive team and an outstanding netminder, and they generated the necessary offense to win.

"Obviously, we ran into a great goaltender," Armstrong said. "But we have to be able to manufacture goals. They found a way to manufacture goals against a goalie that was on top of his game, we didn't. That's one area, and it's obviously to look back and decide if the right pieces are in place here."

Modano touched on a number of areas that he felt decided the series, including the four-OT loss in Game 1 and dropping two home games.

"I've always said goal-scoring has been an issue," Modano said. "You always look for those second and third goals of the games, that could have been the difference in the series. You know, Game 1 was a big game, I think if we came in there and snuck that one out, things could have been different. Our track record at home just hasn't been that good, either."

Other players also mentioned the fact that the Stars got behind early in the series hurt them and many agreed with Modano that the losses at the American Airlines Center in Games 3 and 4 were the most damaging. Game 3 was particularly frustrating, because they came home with the momentum, took a 1-0 lead into the third period while thoroughly outplaying the Canucks, and then saw the tide turn the other way. Vancouver then tied it early in the third and won it in overtime.

In Game 4, the Stars came from behind to tie it with 7:31 remaining in the third period, but then surrendered the game-winning goal just two minutes later to lose 2-1 and go down 3-1 in the series.

"I think the series took a turn, not in Game 7, but in Game 3 and 4 here," Armstrong said. "I think there's a reason those statistics bear out that you usually don't win those series (when trailing 3-1), and you need to play great hockey from that point on. You need to get great breaks, but that's a lot to ask and in Game 7, we came up short. I thought the series was there in some earlier games that we let slip through."

"We split the first two games, I think that's your job to do, but I think when we came back here, if we get the third game, it's a different series," added Ribeiro, who led the Stars in the regular season with 59 points and contributed three assists in the series. "You let that one go and you lost both games at home, so it's chasing the series. To come back from down 3-1 to bring it to seven was good, but not good enough. I think that was the difference, the home games that we had a chance to take the lead and really push them."

In the end, though, perhaps it's easier to focus on how close they were in Game 7 and lament the lead they were unable to maintain.

"I think we turned the series around in Game 5 and we had it under our control, even 20 minutes of Game 7," Morrow said. "If it was taking our foot off the gas in the second period, or the penalty trouble, we just couldn't regroup from 14 minutes or whatever it was of short-handed hockey in the second. For a team with the depth that we had, rotating four lines, keeping everyone involved, playing with energy - once we lost it in the second period, we couldn't find it, for whatever reason."


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