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Bubble bursts: Sour month has Stars searching for old playoff magic

With two wins in 11 games, Dallas is trending the wrong way - and Thursday's meltdown only makes the sting worse

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

The bubble burst Thursday night.

Or so it would seem.

You remember the bubble -- the sports ecosphere that allowed the 2020 playoffs to occur and allowed the Stars to get to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2000. Y'know, the strange petri dish where this odd conglomeration of talent and personalities bonded together to become something we had not seen in these parts for two decades.

Yeah, that bubble.

It's gone now.

 

[READ MORE: Stars squander late two-goal lead in loss to Panthers]

 

When the Stars blew a two-goal lead in the final seven minutes of an eventual 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers, there were no good feelings. The team has now won once in its past eight games and just twice in its past 11. It has found all manner of ways to waste great efforts and squander points in the standings, and has kind of shown that any magic it gained in the ethereal fantasyland of Edmonton is now floating around in the icy heavens.

Maybe the hockey gods gave it to the Florida Panthers. The restructured Cats are finding a lot of winning this season, and Thursday's comeback just added more fuel to that fire.

"The guys are coming to play each and every night, doing what we have to do," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "Playing right has been very noticeable. If you play hard and you play with purpose, you give yourself a chance shift in, shift out."

It almost seems easy for the Panthers right now. By beating the Stars, Florida now has not lost two games in a row and moves to 13-4-2.

"Bounce-back games are always huge," Florida captain Aleksander Barkov said. "You can't lose two in a row, we actually mentioned that before the game. It's going to get us far if we keep playing like this, playing extra hard, kind of pissed off hockey after we lose. We obviously don't want to lose at all, but it gives us an extra boost for us to come out harder during the next game."

Video: Bowness: Missed chances, poor defending cost Stars

In fact, Barkov said winning two games in the three-game miniseries with Dallas not only changes the standings, but creates a positive vibe in the eight-game season series against the Stars.

"It set the tone with this little series, trying to win them and get points out of every game," Barkov said. "That's what we did, we got two points from this game and now we move forward."

The Panthers have a lot of fun stories on their team. Forwards like Anthony Duclair and Patric Hornqvist and Alex Wennberg are getting the chance to prove other team's wrong. Goalie Chris Driedger is making a statement that he belongs in the NHL. And that support allows for someone like struggling Sergei Bobrovsky to be the hero on Thursday night.

It all sounds so familiar.

The Stars found paladins like Joe Pavelski and Joel Kiviranta and Anton Khudobin in the bubble, and they found an amazing family feel. That's carried over this season off the ice when players support each other during COVID postponements or last week's ice storm.

But it sure felt different after Thursday's meltdown when coach Rick Bowness was unusually critical in his assessment of the situation.

"There's got to be some ownership taken here," Bowness said. "Look at who let us down again tonight, the veterans, they did."

Wow.

Bowness was talking about the defensive play and the inability to handle the pressure in the third period, because offensively, the big plays were made by Jamie Benn and Pavelski and John Klingberg. But still, the words sounded pretty harsh when they were issued in the postgame Zoom call.

So is the honeymoon over? Can they get that holiday dinner feeling back from their avuncular coach and the large group of brothers and cousins that melded together in the chemistry experiment that was "the bubble?"

Video: Pavelski on tough loss: 'It's frustrating, for sure'

I'm not sure.

Look, I'm usually the sappy one who believes in all of the family stuff. When "hockey people" tell me that every new season is different, I scoff and write that the bubble was real and that it changed people. But I'm starting to think hockey people are right on this one.

If we want to use the Florida Panthers as an example of how fickle the hockey fates can be, then we can use the Tampa Bay Lightning as an example of how hard it is to win. The Lightning in 2017-18 lost in seven games in the Conference Final, and then came back and posted the greatest regular season in NHL history in 2018-19.

They were swept in the first round of the playoffs.

Last season, life was a lot harder during the regular season and the Lightning finished second in their division. However, they built a tough skin and powered through to win the Stanley Cup, beating Dallas in six games.

It's a story of finding a new drive, a new personality, a new "team," so to speak.

Bowness was asked about his decision to not use his timeout when the team was melting down on Thursday, and he said he felt that not only might he need the timeout later in the game, but that he wanted his veterans to lead the way.

"Sometimes, you've got to trust your players," he said. "You talk about it (using the timeout), but you've got to trust your veterans to settle things down and get playing the right way again."

Maybe Bowness was frustrated with his own decision there. Maybe it's a chance to open up discussion between players and coaches on where they are this season. Maybe facing the Lightning Saturday and Monday will not so much bring back memories of last season, but allow the Stars to take the next step in this one.

Because, as much as I didn't want it to happen, the bubble burst on Thursday night.

Or so it would seem.

 

Up next

at Lightning; Saturday 6 p.m. CT

Amalie Arena, Tampa, Fla.

TV: FOX Sports Southwest

Radio: The Ticket 96.7-FM, 1310-AM

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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