After the way the season unraveled over the last two and a half months of the year, for the Stars to let that opportunity to make the post-season in the final game slip away was especially difficult to stomach.
“It’s tough,” admitted Dallas defenseman Stephane Robidas
. “Obviously, we didn’t make the playoffs now the last three years, but I think this year, being so close, we had our chances. All we needed to do was win that last game and we couldn’t do it, so it’s really frustrating for us right now, but there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s going to be there for awhile, it’s going to be tough to swallow.”
“It sucks,” captain Brenden Morrow
stated bluntly. “We had a chance with one game, didn’t win that one, and now it’s a long summer of what ifs and coulda shoulda wouldas. Every year when you don’t have success, there’s changes being made and there’s big question marks with our lineup and who’s going to come back. It’s going to be a difficult summer but exciting at the same time.”
The biggest change already happened, as two days after the season concluded, head coach Marc Crawford was relieved of his duties, which only accentuates the magnitude of the club’s disappointment.
Certainly a boatload of injuries down the stretch contributed to their demise, with key players like Jamie Benn
, Nicklas Grossman and Brad Richards missing significant chunks of time. They also really missed some of the foot soldiers, like Adam Burish
and Krys Barch, who were each injured in fights against Boston Feb. 3, and Toby Petersen
, but there were other issues that contributed to their demise as well.
There were several games where late goals against cost the Stars crucial points, including two contests on a late-season homestand - March 13 against Los Angeles, when Michal Handzus scored with 21 seconds left to give the Kings a 3-2 win and March 23 when Teemu Selanne’s fluky goal with 5.4 seconds remaining tied it and led to a Ducks’ 4-3 OT win. Each one was a devastating blow.
“I can think of a couple of incidents throughout the season that hurt us, obviously,” noted agitating forward Steve Ott
. “When you lose key guys to injuries - and it’s a cliche because every team goes through injuries, you go through those roller-coasters. For us, that Boston game really hurt us, we lost two heart-and-soul guys out of our lineup and the rest of it, from Richie’s injury to other guys that were in and out of the lineup - it messes up the chemistry of your team, and for us, we never really seemed to get back up on the hill after those. Finding a way to be consistently good throughout the year, no matter how many injuries or down times, is definitely something we can improve on.”
General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk cited the club’s defensive corps as one area he’d like to upgrade during the off-season.
“I think we have to make improvements there,” said Nieuwendyk. “Obviously, losing Grossman really hurt because our top pair, Goligoski and Robidas, took a beating down the stretch and it was no secret that some of those big Western Conference teams, that was their game plan, to pound those guys. You want to have them on the ice because they’re good players, but we really missed Grossman, his size, his power, and we need to make improvements.”
Even more of a punch to the gut is the fact that the Stars were sailing along earlier in the year, heading into the All-Star break in late January leading the Pacific Division by five points and enjoying a nine-point cushion over the first non-playoff spot team.
Then the injuries started to pile up and the club struggled out of the break with a 1-8-1 mark, a stretch which included the loss of Richards to a concussion for 10 games. After the acquisition of defenseman Alex Goligoski
on Feb. 22, the Stars stabilized a bit, got some players back and reeled off a 6-0-2 hot streak, but that was followed by a few more injuries and a season-long seven-game homestand in mid-March where they could only muster up a 2-2-3 record. They followed that with an 0-3-1 mark in the first four games of a crucial road trip facing teams that were also involved in the chase, and Dallas sank out of the top eight.
“We were right there in January, we were leading our division and things were going well for us,” Robidas recounted. “For whatever reason, we went in a slump, had a few injuries and it was tough to get out of it. We finally got out of it but the other teams kept on winning and you look at a team like San Jose or Anaheim - after Christmas, they were both on fire and we just couldn’t sustain it. We were battling, the last month we were in and out and we were right there til the end, but we just couldn’t finish the deal.”
Looking like they were out of it heading into the final five games, the Stars finally righted the ship and reeled off four straight wins to remain within striking distance. Then the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks lost their last game of the regular season, opening the door for Dallas to sneak in ahead of them with a win against the Wild.
They couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.
“It’s very disappointing with one game on the line, that we had an opportunity to get to where we needed to go, but I don’t think we missed the playoffs just because of one game,” said Nieuwendyk. “This is a long season, there’s ups and downs and there’s a lot of pain and sweat that goes into it. We had dips that we couldn’t seem to get out of during the second half that ultimately cost us and we needed to beat the teams that we had to in order to get to the playoffs. Even though we had a lead in the division at one point, teams were charging, teams were playing hard, and we faced adversity with injuries, but we weren’t able to get the job done. Give credit to the teams that did get in, but we want to be one of those teams consistently.”
After taking a 2-1 lead into the second period, the final game was tied 3-3 going into the third, but it wound up slipping away when former Star Antti Miettinen scored at 6:47 to make it 4-3. Then, despite a late push that included several good scoring chances, Dallas surrendered an empty-net goal and lost 5-3.
“To be honest, going into the third, tie game, we were exactly where we wanted to be,” noted Robidas. “We played really well all year in the third period, even down by a goal, I think we had one of the best records in the league and to be honest, I don’t know. It’s tough to say why this happened, but I think we just got to learn from it.”
“The (Wild) played a good game,” said Morrow, who scored in each of the last five games to finish with a career-high and team-leading 33. “We probably didn’t play our best, it was a real emotion ride we were on. To give ourselves a chance, we had to win four in a row. I think we maybe ran out of gas a little bit, drained ourselves that last little push. But they had a real good game, they had things to play for, they wanted to ruin our party, so it wasn’t just us not getting the job done, they played well.”
“It was a roller-coaster ride for the day, too,” Ott added. “We’re all watching the Chicago-Detroit game in our hotel rooms, and our energy’s going down. We probably shouldn’t even have watched it. And then you play that game and you’re just on your heels - it didn’t feel right at all. We were a lot looser playing the other games when we won four in a row.”
Despite the pervading disappointment, though, there is plenty of optimism when the focus turns to next season, even if there are uncertainties surrounding team ownership and the identity of the next coach.
“It’s a bad feeling to lose like we did, knowing that if we won that last game, we would make the playoffs,” added winger Loui Eriksson
, who finished tied for 15th in the NHL (and second to Richards on the team) with 73 points. “I think for the year, we were a really good team. I’m looking forward to next year, I think we have a great bunch of guys on this team, so we just got to do all we can to make it next year.”
“Obviously, the way it ended leaves a sour taste in your mouth and it’s pretty disappointing, but for me, I would take away a lot of positives and some excitement about where this group has the possibility of going,” said Burish, who missed 20 of the last 30 games with two separate injuries. “For people outside watching, obviously, disappointment and injuries and saying, ‘You guys didn’t get the job done’ - it was a tough year that way. But there’s a lot of positive stuff going on around here, and I’m excited about what this group can do.”
“This year was a fun year, I haven’t had this much fun, with this group of guys - the guys were phenomenal, it was great to come to the rink every night and compete with them,” said Ott. “In so many games, if it was losing by one or winning by one, we always gave ourselves a chance by the end of it. You always know when your team competes, it makes it a great atmosphere and fun to know that these guys are going to all battle together.”
And some of the lessons learned the hard way this season should help the Stars in the future.
“I think it’s a good reminder for us that points are very valuable every night.,” said Robidas. “You can’t take nights off and points early in the season are as important as at the end. If we would have won a game early in the year, maybe we didn’t have to win that last game, so we got to make sure we’re ready next year to have a good training camp and get off to a good start.”