Five years of frustration. Five years of missed opportunities. Five years of angst. All swept away by a dominating, shutout victory.
One of my favorite things about sports is the dramatic endings they can offer. No matter what sport, they all have the ability to end in breathtaking, suspenseful fashion. The walk-off homerun, the buzzer-beater, the Hail Mary, or the sudden death overtime goal. There’s nothing else like it. Stars fans know it better than most. Back in 1999 they accomplished something only a few, rare teams have ever done. They won a title on the final play of the season. It is the pinnacle of sporting achievement and entertainment, all wrapped in one.
And yet, all that being said, Friday’s playoff-clinching win over St. Louis contained very little drama down the stretch. After the first period the Stars controlled every facet of the game. Dallas outshot St. Louis 21-6 in the second period, scored two goals, and the Blues were never in the game afterwards. It wasn’t suspenseful. And it didn’t come down to the wire.
But, oh man, was it perfect.
As incredible as sudden victory can be, when a team and its fanbase have been waiting for something for so long and have endured so much, there is something uniquely spectacular about watching it arrive as it did on Friday night.
When Ryan Garbutt deflected a shot to give the Stars a 3-0 lead four and a half minutes into the third period, everyone in the building knew the Stars were going to clinch. Whether old wounds and superstitions allowed you to verbalize it is another story. But anyone watching that game knew that on that night, these Stars would not be denied.
And so the final 15 minutes became a countdown. Instead of holding their breath, the sellout crowd of 18,532 emptied their lungs and filled the AAC with nonstop energy as if they were waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square. It was no longer about if, but rather when. With about four minutes left, the Stars took a penalty. When Dallas emerged unscathed and Jamie Benn stepped out of the box with 2:10 remaining, even the most pessimistic of fans acknowledged that this was finally happening. In script-like fashion, there was not another whistle in the game. The crowd rose to their feet and stayed there for an incredible 130 seconds that likely still sends chills down your body.
If you have been with this team through the last five years, this was the perfect way to break the longest playoff drought in franchise history. You had the chance to process what you were witnessing. To think about all the tough times. All the chances that got away. Game 82 in Minnesota. The collapse in 2012. The injuries, and sub-par performances. The former coaches and general managers. Bankruptcy. All of it. You had the chance to think about it, and discard it once and for all, knowing that it was now officially in the past.
If this had been a movie, you would have seen smoky images of all of the bad breaks and hardships from the last five seasons whirl into a funnel cloud and vanish into thin air as the clock approached zero. The only thing missing was Jamie Benn saying, “This House is Clean,” when he addressed the crowd.
After the game had ended and the Stars had secured the final ticket to the NHL postseason, what ensued was just as enjoyable to see. Injured Stars players like Brenden Dillon, Ray Whitney, and even Rich Peverley made their way onto the bench to celebrate with those in the lineup that night. It was a terrific sight for this team who is so close, both on and off the ice. A giddy Lindy Ruff walked into his post-game press conference with a victory cigar – an incredibly satisfying moment for a man who had been through his own professional struggles over the last year and a half. The crowd was euphoric as they spilled out into the concourse. A group of several hundred clamored by our table for the Post-Game Show, erupting into cheers of “Let’s Go Stars!” and “PLAY-OFFS!” It was a party six years in the making, and nobody wanted to leave.
When the team reunited the following day at practice, there were still plenty of smiles to go around. Everybody answered the questions appropriately. They were ready to get back to work, and they were focused on whoever their first round opponent would be (they didn’t know at the time if they’d play Anaheim or Colorado). It’s true. They were focused. And they all know that there are still more achievements to be had. But they weren’t too quick to dismiss what they had done. And I really like that. Rest assured everyone’s heads will be in the right place when the puck drops at the Honda Center for Game-One Wednesday night. The Stars have become somewhat of a sexy, sleeper pick in the NHL circle, and every single player in Victory Green believes they can win this series. But, as they should have, the Stars allowed the feeling of Friday night to breathe just a little while longer.
There is a lot of excitement surrounding the Stars right now, and there is a lot of belief inside that locker room. I, along with all of you, hope this ride continues a little bit further. But no matter where the next two months take this team, this year’s Stars will always be looked back upon as the group that returned the organization to where it wants to be. For a team that has had to find a balance between so many highs and lows all season, it is extremely fitting that they were able to appropriately balance looking ahead to a playoff matchup while still appreciating just how much their performance this year has meant to this organization, this city, this fanbase, and themselves.
One of my favorite images from Friday night was that of Trevor Daley – the only remaining holdover from the last Dallas Stars playoff team. He played one of the best games he has ever played in his ten-year career, just two days after blocking a shot with his face and taking 20 stitches in the process. As the crowd counted the seconds down to zero, Daley’s badly-swollen grin told the story. What the Stars had been through – what he had been through – hurt. It hurt an awful lot. But his smile was perhaps the biggest of them all as jumped up and down on the bench, and then poured onto the ice to celebrate with his teammates. He wore the pain, just as all of you did. But he enjoyed every bit of that moment, just as all of you did.
Stars fans no longer have to question what makes this year different. The answer was on display loud and clear in the Stars lopsided, playoff-clinching victory on Fan Appreciation Night. You lived it. You saw it.
If you were there on Friday, you felt it.
And you’ll never forget it.
The Stars are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and will take on the Western Conference’s top seed, the Anaheim Ducks. Below are some things to keep ‘On the Radar’ for the Stars opening round matchup:
Duel of the Duos
When sizing up the series between the Stars and the Ducks, many people look at the top two scorers and believe whichever pair has the better series will lead their team to victory. This matchup does yield a head-to-head battle of two of the best duos in the NHL. The Stars combo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and the Ducks tandem of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are two of only three sets of teammates to finish in the NHL’s Top-10 in scoring. Getzlaf, Seguin, and Perry rank respectively as the top three scorers in the Western Conference, and Benn is tied for fifth. In the regular season series, the Ducks top pair got the better of the Stars top pair, despite Dallas winning two of the three meetings. Getzlaf and Perry combined for 9 points (3g, 6a), while Seguin and Benn combined for 3 points (1g, 2a).
All four players had terrific closes to the season. Getzlaf had points in 14 of his final 20 games, and Perry registered points in 12 of his last 20. They combined for 42 points during that span. However, remarkably, Seguin and Benn surpassed those numbers. Seguin registered points in 17 of his last 20 games, and Benn had points in 16 of his final 20, including the final five of the season. They combined for 50 points over those 20 games.
There If You Need Him
If the guys expected to carry the scoring load wind up canceling each other out, the series could be defined by which team gets more secondary scoring. Both clubs are top heavy, with the only 50-point scorers being the aforementioned duos. Each team has five 15-goal scorers on their roster, but the Ducks have two more 20-goal scorers than the Stars. If secondary scoring becomes key, then any number of players could step up for Dallas. However, one man who might be a candidate to do damage is Ryan Garbutt. The pesky winger finished this season with an impressive 17 goals – third most on the Stars. He also was Dallas’ leading scorer against Anaheim in the regular season series, registering 4 points (2g, 2a) in 3 games. In his career, Garbutt has feasted on the Ducks, averaging a point per contest with 6 points in 6 games, and a +5 rating. In 125 career games against other NHL clubs, Garbutt has 39 points and a +5 rating. That’s an average of .312 points per game.
He will likely be matched up against the Getzlaf line, and his primary job will be to disrupt Anaheim’s top unit. However, if the Stars are in need of depth scoring, don’t be surprised if Garbutt makes an impression or two on the sheet.
New Faces in Net
Dallas and Anaheim have only met three times this season, but the probable starting goaltenders in this series don’t even have that experience to draw from. There is no guesswork as to who the Stars Game-One starter will be. Kari Lehtonen helped carry this team back to the postseason, and is set to make just his second appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, he has not faced the Ducks at all this season. Anaheim is the only Western Conference team, and one of just three teams over all, that Lehtonen did appear in a game against (The others are Columbus and Philadelphia). The Stars twice started Dan Ellis, and once started Jack Campbell this season against Anaheim. Neither is on the playoff roster, with Ellis finishing the season in Florida and Campbell in the AHL, where he spent almost the entire year.
Meanwhile, the Ducks crease is a little cloudier. Resident #1 goaltender Jonas Hiller may find himself on the bench for the start of the series after some shaky play down the stretch, and a terrific rookie campaign from fellow netminder Frederik Andersen. Hiller started all three games versus the Stars, but finished with a 0-2 record, making 61 saves on 70 shots in seven periods worth of work. In the only Ducks win, Hiller was pulled after allowing three goals in the first period. Andersen made his NHL debut in relief and stopped all 24 shots he faced over the final 40 minutes for the win. That was the first meeting of the year, back on October 20, when Campbell was also making his NHL debut for Dallas.
Ever since the Olympic Break, Ruff has ridden his top four defensemen pretty hard. With Brenden Dillon getting banged up in the penultimate game of the season and still a question mark for the start of the series, the Stars back-end could have a significant hole to fill. Dillon, Jordie Benn, Alex Goligoski, and Trevor Daley have each logged an average of more than 21 minutes over the last couple months of the season. Dillon, who appeared in 80 games this season, has averaged over 21 minutes for the entire season. After those four, there is a huge drop off in minutes from defensemen. Sergei Gonchar, who turned 40 on Sunday, has averaged the most ice time of the remaining defensemen on the roster at 17:36 for the season. However, the veteran who began the year on the top pairing, has received less than 16 minutes a game dating back to the beginning of February. Rookie Kevin Connauton has the next most as 15:19 per game. But Connuaton saw his playing time reduced late in the year, being scratched for 12 of the final 14 games this season. Fellow rookie Patrik Nemeth made his NHL debut only earlier this month, although he did play in the club’s final eight games of the season. He averaged 13:46 a night, however Ruff was able to ease him into certain roles and monitor his usage on the third pairing. The final defensemen is oft-injured Aaron Rome. The seven-year NHL blue-liner boasts 18 games of Stanley Cup Playoff experience, but he’s had difficulty remaining in the lineup this year due to a variety of ailments. He played in just 25 of the 82 games and only averaged 13:05 per game when he did.
The best case scenario for Dallas is obviously Dillon being cleared for Game-1. The Stars relied heavily on their top two pairings to get them into the postseason, and the plan was for more of the same once they arrived. However, if that is not an option, not only will Ruff be left with a decision of who makes the lineup, but also how they are utilized. If Dillon cannot go, at least one of the four defensemen who have rotated through the third pairing will see a substantially increased role, and will need to respond in a big way to help the Stars contend with Anaheim’s #1 ranked offense.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Josh Bogorad is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars