The 2014-2015 Dallas Stars season was an uphill battle. Literally from opening night, when a solid performance fell short in a shootout loss to Chicago, it felt like the Stars were chasing. That feeling never went away and it took a toll on the players, the coaches, and the fans.
The combination of the early-season hole the team dug itself and the surprise seasons of a few Western Conference rivals forced the Stars into 'Catch-Up Mode' early, and they never quite could. Because of that, there was an air of discontent that seemed to linger over most of the season. Even amidst some terrific moments and storylines that developed - like Tyler Seguin's goal-pace, the emergence of John Klingberg, Dallas posting four different four-game winning streaks (the Stars had zero last season) - there was still a sense that it was overshadowed by a disappointment of where the Stars were in the standings. It's understandable, and the players were the first to admit that they were as frustrated as anyone.
However, it also robbed the Stars and their fans of what could have been enthusiasm over some very exciting things that were happening right under our nose this season.
That's not to say the Stars should be happy with this year. The team had a goal of making the playoffs and they fell short. There is no disputing that. If they want to get back to the postseason next year, they will have to be better than they were this season. They'll need a quicker start, better goaltending, better team defense, and a better ability to close out games. Without question, the Stars left themselves with plenty of room for improvement.
But to call this season an abject failure would be shortsighted. When all was said and done, the Stars actually finished the year with more points and wins than they had last season as a playoff team. They finished as the second-highest scoring team in the NHL. They tied for the sixth-best road record in the league. They saw a number of young players have a positive impact as rookies, and Jamie Benn and Tyle Seguin once again showcased that they are among the best players in the NHL. There are things to hang your hat on there.
Still, the way the season played out, it was difficult to bask in any of that.
And that's one of the things that made Saturday's night season-finale so special. As Jamie Benn was willing his way to history,that was pretty much the one and only focal point for everyone in the building or anyone watching on TV. It was the story of the night, and it played out in storybook fashion.
In the age of twitter and live scoring updates, everyone knew exactly what the situation was. When Benn opened the scoring seven and a half minutes into the game, American Airlines Center erupted. An aftershock struck when he scored again six minutes later. The video board told Stars fans what they already knew. That for the moment Jamie Benn had moved into the NHL scoring lead. Meanwhile, half a country away in Long Island, John Tavares notched a third-period goal and an assist to leapfrog Benn and reclaim a one-point lead. Benn and the Stars had one period, and he needed two points.
For the first 17 minutes of the period, not much happened. Lindy Ruff loaded up Benn's line with Spezza and Nichushkin in an effort to get him better scoring chances. Then he went back to his starting tandem of Cody Eakin and Patrick Eaves. Time was running out on Benn's bid at history, until just under three minutes to play when Nashville pulled their goaltender. Everything went through Benn all night and with an empty net the Stars again looked to find their captain. With about two and a half to play, Benn tried a bid from just before center ice. It defected off a body and wide as the crowd groaned. He got the puck again a half minute later and, from inside his own zone, let a combination shot/pass/clearing attempt go towards center ice. Somehow it got past Nashville defenseman Seth Jones and coasted over 100 feet into the empty net.
The crowd went crazy. Hats littered the ice recognizing Benn's second ever NHL hat trick, and his first at home. But everyone knew the bigger picture. Benn had tied Tavares. He still needed one more point. Tavares had 38 goals to Benn's 35. If they both finished with 86 points, Tavares would win the Art Ross Trophy by a tiebreaker. There was 2:05 to play.
When Benn's empty net goal got past Jones and slid towards the cage, the entire crowd stood up. They didn't sit down for the rest of the night. Through the delay of picking up the hats, and into the resuming of action, everyone stood and cheered. Benn started those final two minutes on the bench. With about 95 seconds remaining, he jumped over the boards for his final shift of the season. Without any prompting, the crowd cheered as he did.
Within seconds the entire arena was chanting, "Jamie! Jamie!" The clock continued to tick down. With about 35 seconds left, again from his own zone, Benn found a streaking Trevor Daley with a backhand, cross-ice pass through the neutral zone. Daley raced into the zone on a two-on-one with Eaves on a rush where Benn would have gotten an assist, however the pass to Eaves didn't connect. Again, the crowd groaned. With 15 seconds left Nashville defenseman Viktor Stalberg grabbed the puck in his defensive circle and was a clearing attempt away from ending any hope of Dallas' first ever scoring title. However, Benn blocked the attempt and Daley scooped up the puck. With 10 seconds left he cut towards the right side of the net, and slipped a pass through the crease to Eakin who was planted just outside the blue paint. In one motion he buried the puck past the right side of netminder Carter Hutton, as Jamie Benn watched from the slot.
With 8.5 seconds left in the season, the goal was scored. Eakin from Daley and Jamie Benn.
Benn raised both arms in a picture of relief and disbelief more than jubilation as pandemonium ensued around him. Those on the ice mobbed him as his teammates and fans literally jumped for joy. The bench went crazy. The crowd went crazy. Jamie's older brother Jordie was shown hollering and furiously slapping his stick in celebration from across the ice. In typical Jamie Benn fashion, he was probably the person who celebrated the least.
The crowd knew they had witnessed history well before the official announcement was made. It was the greatest secondary assist in Dallas Stars history, and quite possibly the most dramatic conclusion to a scoring race the NHL will ever see. Watching a replay of the goal days later, you still get chills.
To see that reaction and to experience that moment was something both special and needed for the Stars and their fans. Especially at home, after so many painful finishes this year.
This wasn't a great season for the Stars. But it wasn't a terrible one either. Despite what the trek may have felt like along the way. The fact is that this year was part of a growth process that we all expected and hoped would come sooner than we now know it will.
Despite the disappointing end result, there is still reason to be optimistic about the future of the Stars. Dallas closed the season with a 14-5 record. They went 31-18-5 (.620) over the last four months of the season. Benn and Seguin both finished in the top-10 in NHL points and goals. No other NHL teammates did that.
A rough start to the season masked a lot of the excitement that still exists with the Stars. But Saturday night was an opportunity to revel in an accomplishment never before reached by a Stars player.
No, it wasn't the trophy the Stars set out for at the start of this season. But it truly was one of the greatest moments in franchise history. And it happened in heart-stopping style. Most importantly though, in a season where frustration often overshadowed celebration, the last game off the year served as a reminder of just how bright the Stars future remains and the highs that await.
After wading through a tough year, that's a pretty nice final memory to savor as we head into the offseason.
With the way things finished up, next season can't get here soon enough.
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.