Every hockey season seems to have that one critical game, a contest that dictated a path, a catalyst for greatness...or for change.
For me, that game this past year was February 12th at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
That one tattooed the soul.
The Stars travelled to Nashville after a 5-2 matinee spanking of the Carolina Hurricanes at AAC, and that victory had moved them to within 6 points of a Predators team stumbling and tenuously occupying the 8th and final playoff spot. The Preds were also in the 5th month of challenging the Stars for the title of "Most Disappointing Team in the Western Conference"...but I digress.
So this monumental "4-pointer" had been setup for the Sunday Showdown in Music City.
The warmup and preamble had a bit of a playoff-esque feel to it - as much as there can be for a February game. And then, when the puck dropped, all hell broke loose.
Three fights: Eakin-Johansen, Faksa-Fiddler, McKenzie-Jarnkrok, and 46 minutes in penalties in a full contact, fractious and fabulous first period.
Why the vitriol and excess testosterone? Well the Predators were accused of mailing in the 7-4 loss to Florida the day before, so they came out all chesty and itching to go, overcompensating for the previous day's egg laying. They subsequently beat a path to the penalty box and the Stars power play made them pay dearly, building a 3-0 lead by way of the man advantage.
We're thinking, how great is this?! Gonna move to within 4 points of 8th. Terrific way to start a three-game road trip in the division. Awesome.
Then...Major plot twist.
The once swelling lead ruptured and, despite a penalty shot stop by Lehtonen on Smith, good ole' Stars Hockey 2017 took over. Undisciplined play with the puck. Vacillating young d-men. Weak goals against.
Yup. Boom, Boom, Boom. Short handed boom...and empty net boom.
That three-zip lead became a devastating and humiliating 5-3 defeat.
Eight points in arrears of Nashville.
Hopes of catching the Predators gone and playoff hopes all but dashed.
Fast-forward three months to the now, and those Nashville Predators will represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final, proving once again that all a team really needs to do is get in. Seeding doesn't seem to matter. (They finished 16th in the West and with the same point total as both the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, who failed to qualify in the East.)
In that same expired time span, our Dallas Stars missed the postseason (by a considerable margin), changed head coaches (hey Hitch), acquired and signed an answer to their goaltending deficiencies (Big Ben), and won a Draft Lottery (3rd).
Forks in the road, baby.
As opponents are finding out during these playoffs, Bridgestone Arena is not the place to be when your game begins to unravel or you are in desperate need of a win. The locals band together and become of one throat in that tin edifice, and their jaundice jersey-ed team feeds off of it. (Just ask the Hawks, Blues and Ducks. Preds clinched every series on home ice)
So Smashville is about to host Stanley Cup Final games. I didn't see that in the cards back in mid-February, but good on them.
Meanwhile, Hitch and the Stars hockey department are working to round-out the coaching staff. Ben Bishop is looking for housing. And GM Jim Nill is reportedly dangling the 3rd overall pick in front of teams to see if he can improve the team now, instead of tomorrow. (Or maybe both).
All of this is transpiring with the goal of next season's "defining game" going a different way, and the Stars getting back to a Cup Final for the first time since the last time Hitch was at the helm.