On Tuesday night the Dallas Stars finished off their most recent destruction of the Chicago Blackhawks to clinch a postseason berth for the second time in three years. It's a huge accomplishment. Dallas became the third team to earn a playoff spot, and the first in the powerhouse Central Division. Those who have followed this team over the years know just what a big deal it is to make the playoffs. And yet, after hanging a half-dozen on the United Center scoreboard to officially enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there was little fanfare inside the Stars locker room.
That might not be the reaction one would expect. Not from a team who entering this season had made the playoffs just once since 2008. But if 97 points through 74 games and first place for most of the season hadn't delivered the message fully, Tuesday night's aftermath said it loud and clear.
Things have changed in Dallas.
When the Stars clinched the final playoff spot in 2014 to break a five-year drought, it felt more like a championship celebration. The fans celebrated like it was. On the ice there was jubilation that later spilled into the locker room for a team toast. Jamie Benn grabbed a mic and addressed the crowd. Lindy Ruff broke out a cigar in his postgame press scrum. The entire experience was one gigantic party. You can relive the night here if you're feeling nostalgic.
The Stars organization, players, coaches, and fans earned that night and that celebration. It was payoff for 456 straight regular season games without a postseason one. Plus, it was the eleventh hour of the season. The Stars had to scratch and claw their way from a year-long standings deficit to clinch in the second to last game of the year. They spent most of the season on the outside looking in, and managed to sneak in just before time expired. All of those reasons made the reaction on April 11, 2014 not only justified, they made it amazing.
But that was then, and this is now. And now the Stars are no longer a team that's merely happy to be there.
The Stars could be a few weeks from a near wire-to-wire run atop the toughest division in hockey. They are inching in on their first 100-point season in almost a decade. They have the most explosive offense in the game, and an improved defense. They have players with a proven history of success on the biggest stages. They have the confidence of a team who can sweep a season series with Washington and dominate the defending Stanley Cup Champions over five games. They can erupt out of the gates, or come back from any deficit. They are a Western Conference-leading 23 games over .500, and they are a true Stanley Cup contender.
The Stars last played in the postseason just 16 days after that clinching night two years ago. There are only six more playoff games on the organization's resume than there were when they beat St. Louis two years ago to break the spell. On paper it might seem so recent. In practice, however, it feels like the team has advanced light years since then.
This season began somewhat similarly to the one back in 2014. Most people were intrigued with the headline-grabbing moves of the summer, and curious to see what the finished product would look like on the ice. Yet, most still believed the Stars were a few pieces, years, or both, away from taking the proverbial next step. Few, if any, thought they would contend for the best record in the West.
Yet, here they are. A playoff spot in hand, and the chance to ensure the Western Conference road to the Stanley Cup goes through Dallas. They're also playing the right kind of hockey at the right time. The Stars went out and picked up points in eight of nine games en route to their playoff-clinching victory. They did it against top-notch opposition to boot. The Stars made it official on Tuesday, but lately they've looked every bit a playoff team. They also look like one way too focused on April to celebrate in March.
Making the playoffs is not easy. Last year the defending champs missed the cut. In a few weeks, half the NHL will be in offseason mode. Earning the right to move on is nothing to scoff at. The Stars did acknowledge the accomplishment, even if they didn't necessarily celebrate it.
That said, while it was tempered for the team, there was a celebration on Tuesday among Stars fans. As there should have been. There is nothing like the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's the most entertaining tournament in sports, and it's heading back to Dallas. That is exciting.
This time, however, the excitement from making the playoffs is much more about what the Stars might do next, rather than what they have already done. And that is something really worth celebrating.
The Stars have eight more games this season, alternating two at a time between road and home. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as Dallas makes their way towards the close of the regular season:
Jason Spezza is one goal away from making the Stars the first NHL team to have three 30-goal scorers in the same season since New Jersey and San Jose did it in 2011-2012. Jamie Benn (36), Tyler Seguin (33) and Jason Spezza (29) all rank in the NHL's top-12 goal scorers this season. If Spezza does reach 30, it would mark the first time in Dallas Stars history that the team had three players score 30 in the same year. The last time the franchise did it was 1992-1993 - the final year in Minnesota - when four different players reached that plateau (Russ Courtnall, Ulf Dahlen, Dave Gagner, Mike Modano).
Kari Lehtonen continues to emerge as the #1 goaltender in Dallas as of late. Lehtonen has started eight of the last nine Stars games, and the team has collected points in all but one of them. In the month of March, Lehtonen has gone 6-1-1 with a 2.42 GAA and a .905 save percentage. The last month and a half has seen a dramatic turn in Lehtonen's usage. After appearing in only 22 of the Stars first 52 games of the season (42.3%), Lehtonen has now played in 17 of the last 22 (77.3%). In that time, Lehtonen is tied for the seventh-most games played among all NHL goaltenders. Before that stretch, he ranked tied for 33rd.
While the Stars have wrapped up a playoff berth, they are still in the thick of two races for the Central Division title and the overall top seed in the Western Conference. While Chicago, Anaheim, San Jose, and Nashville are still mathematically involved in both, the two biggest threats to the Stars leads are St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Stars play their next four games against Arizona, San Jose, Nashville and Arizona again. The Blues next four come against Vancouver, Washington, Colorado, and Boston. Los Angeles gets Winnipeg, Edmonton, San Jose, and Calgary. The Stars do not play St. Louis again this season, but meet Los Angeles for a final time on April 2 at Staples Center.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on ‘Stars Live’ and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.