Anaheim’s’ GM had built a team for a lengthy playoff run in defense of its Stanley Cup championship. The Ducks were already loaded with big, physical, skilled players, and when Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer “unretired’’ over the winter, Burke thought the Ducks had a heck of a chance to repeat.
So it was natural that a majority of the league’s deep thinkers figured the Ducks in the first round of the playoffs would make short work of a Stars team that finished the season in a 4-8-2 slump and was without injured All-Star defensemen Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher.
Burke was livid over his team’s early exit, but the Ducks were clearly outplayed in the series.
The Stars may have been underdogs, but they didn’t give an inch. They advance to the second round while the Ducks make plans to head to the lake for a summer of golf and jet-skiing.
If any of them doubted before, Stars players have seen that the system works. Strong goaltending, a tight-checking defensive mindset and standout special teams can yield this kind of result.
“It’s very gratifying for a team that’s been through a lot,’’ Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “The guys that have been here the last few years have been through a lot. This is the first step in a mission that we all hope will extend for a very long time. What it does is build a belief system in our group that we can do this….We had a team that we weren’t sure how good we were. We talked about being good, but to get the true belief system, you have to do things. I thought from the first game of the series, we were competing hard, blocking shots and doing whatever it took to win.’’
Taking the first two games in Anaheim set a tone for the Stars, and from there, confidence grew within the room that they could pull off a series win few thought possible.
When the Ducks pushed, the Stars either showed discipline and let the Ducks skate to the penalty box, or they stood their ground.
“Yeah, we’re happy,’’ Stars captain Brenden Morrow
said. “They were a bully of a team. They came out and they pushed us around. But we pushed back. We’re proud of ourselves for beating the defending Stanley Cup champs but we won’t be happy until we go three more rounds here.’’
Criticized during their late-season swoon that included several third-period meltdowns, the Stars were dominant in the final period against the Ducks. The four-goal outburst in the third period of Game 6 gave Dallas a 12-4 edge in the final 20 minutes of the series.
“When you have success in that situation, you build off it,’’ Morrow said. “In this series, the third periods were a strong suit.’’
There were unsung heroes aplenty for the Stars. Sure, fans expect big things from Morrow, Marty Turco, Mike Modano and Mike Ribeiro
. But this team had a wave of low-profile contributors.
“Every night it seemed somebody else was making big plays,’’ Stars forward Stu Barnes said. “That was huge for us, getting everybody going like that. It makes us a difficult team to play against.’’
-- Undersized defenseman Stephane Robidas
helped fill the void created by the absence of Zubov and Boucher, contributing one goal and five assists in the series. In a span of 52 seconds of the third period in Game 6, he scored the tying goal and set up Barnes for what proved to be the game-winner. Forced to wear a protective cage after another broken nose sustained in Game 5, Robidas also logged yeoman’s minutes, leading the team with 26:38 in the series clincher.
-- Barnes, generously listed at 5-11 and dwarfed by most of the hulking Ducks, delivered two huge goals in the series in addition to his checking and penalty-killing.
-- Left winger Loui Eriksson
is blossoming as the season wears on. Lack of early production made Eriksson a healthy scratch in 10 of the first 16 regular-season games and he was sent to the minors in November. But Eriksson had eight goals and three assists in the last 18 regular-season games, and then he kept up the pace in the playoffs with three goals and two assists.
-- As usual, underrated right winger Jere Lehtinen was a steadying influence and solid contributor on special teams. Lehtinen finished the first round with two goals and four assists, but more importantly, he remains a consistent winner of puck battles and never seems to be out of position.
-- Defenseman Mattias Norstrom, who had two goals and 11 assists in 66 regular-season games, chipped in with a goal (his first of the playoffs for the 14-year veteran) and an assist in the series in addition to his work on the back line.
-- Forward Steve Ott
is known as an agitator, and he was able to get under the skin of the Ducks. But Ott also bagged a pair of goals and did a good job of keeping his emotions in check with only four penalty minutes in the series.
-- It was presumed that Stars rookie defensemen Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric
as well as 24-year-old Trevor Daley
would be overwhelmed by the massive Ducks forwards. Not so. They kept their poise under intense forechecking pressure, they blocked shots, and they cleared the slot of bigger bodies. Boucher and Zubov might return to the ice in the next round, but if they can’t, the Stars know they can depend on the kids on the blue line.
With all that to stoke their confidence, the Stars advance to the second round for the first time since 2003 against an opponent yet to be determined.
“Getting this first series win, it’s something we’ve talked about for a lot of years here,’’ Barnes said. “We can enjoy it for a couple of days. But we know we’ve got a heck of challenge ahead of us, whoever we end up playing.’’