When the Dallas Stars opened their first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the Vancouver Canucks, the prevailing theme was whether goaltender Marty Turco could exorcize his past playoff demons. Turco's 2-8 record in his previous two series was cause for serious concern, not only among fans but in the Stars' dressing room.What a difference a string of dominant performances can make. By the end of a pulsating Game 7, Turco had totally altered perceptions of his fitness as a pressure goalie.
The Stars made a third consecutive first-round exit, but this time they showed some serious backbone, and nobody was pointing a finger at Turco when the Stars lined up to shake hands with the Canucks after the disappointing conclusion. "We're all human and want to win and be the winner, whether people think of me (that way) or not," Turco said. "I play this game as hard as I can to win and give these guys a chance to win. When you're doubted, you take it personally and this year was no different."
What was different was the fact that the Stars pulled themselves out of a deep hole against the Canucks and nearly advanced to the conference semifinals for the first time since 2003.
"It's never easy and we're all disappointed," Turco said. "When you come back from three to one down, it stings more. Personally I wasn't ready for it to be over. You relish the opportunity to make a difference in a tight series. We had a lot of chances, but also some bad bounces and some really close plays. (Roberto) Luongo played great, and he didn't make it easy to score goals either. Their concentration is getting back to the net and blocking shots. So the guys didn't have much time and space. I never thought we couldn't score, but they didn't make it easy on us either."
Turco had already established himself as one of the league's premier goalies, earning a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team three times. He was coming off another excellent regular season, which saw him rank fourth in the league in goals-against (2.23), fifth in shutouts (six) and tied for sixth in wins (38).
He became the franchise leader in wins with No. 161 on Jan. 20 at Minnesota. Turco experienced another career highlight, when he was the winning goaltender for the Western Conference in the NHL All-Star game held in Dallas in January, stopping 12 of 15 shots in the third period.
But when the playoffs got underway, all anyone could talk about was Turco's post-season deficiencies: an 8-14 record with a 2.54 goals-against and three series losses in four tries.
This time, Turco's playoff numbers were staggering: a league-best three shutouts, a 1.30 goals-against-average (second in the league), and a .952 save percentage (also second). "Hopefully, those questions don't have to be answered again," Stars captain Brenden Morrow said. "He got the recognition for playing well, but he didn't get the success from the rest of his teammates that he deserved. He was motivated, whether it was the media or himself, and he played well."
"Anytime a guy gets three shutouts in the playoffs, that's pretty impressive," Stars forward Stu Banes said. "He gave us a chance to win every night. His saves...the way he handled the puck with some huge clears in penalty-kill situations and when they dumped it in he got pucks, fired it up the ice and put us back on the attack. He did a lot of things very, very well. He was tremendous."
During one shutdown streak, Turco prevented Vancouver's skilled forwards off the scoresheet for a stretch of 165 minutes and 45 seconds, until Henrik Sedin broke through in the second period of Game 7 with a power-play tally. Turco shattered Ed Belfour's club post-season shutout record of 164 minutes and 35 seconds set in 2000.
Belfour was the established starter when Turco broke in with the Stars as the backup in 2000-2001, so surpassing Belfour's playoff mark was a breakthrough achievement for Turco on several levels.
"He came in and had to fill some big shoes," Stars center Mike Modano said. "Once Eddie left, there was a lot of people wondering how this guy was going to respond, having to fill those shoes. It took him a few years, but this was his year to make a big step forward to being that kind of player."
Turco was trying to become the first goalie in NHL history with four shutouts in one playoff series. As it is, he is one of 12 goaltenders with three playoff whitewashes in a series.
Defensively, the Stars did enough to win the series, but they're beginning early summer vacations because they didn't put the puck in the net often enough.
"Marty played great," Stars forward Eric Lindros said. "I was happy for him. It wasn't Marty. We couldn't score. Seven games, 12 goals."
As the series wore on and the Stars fought back, the confidence in Turco was obvious in the Dallas locker room. It almost seemed that if the Stars got a goal, his teammates believed Turco would make it stand up just as much as Turco had confidence in the team's defensive approach. "We were in a tough series, a tight one defensively," Turco said. "When you're in those games and you're playing on the edge like we were...you have confidence in everybody to do their job. I talked a lot about believing in these guys, and it wasn't just me thinking I could pitch a shutout every night. That was everybody doing their job."
This season Turco made changes in his preparation, both physically and mentally. His was in better shape, and he improved his game-day focus. This summer, Turco says he's committed to "getting in better shape and being stronger mentally and physically."
Turco hopes that management keeps the team together for one more season, including the coaching staff.
"This group has been through some tough times and hugely disappointing playoffs," Turco said. "You talk about the sting (of losing) being more and difficult. But you're starting to see a chip on the shoulder. To say the least, I believe in this core group of guys. I know we can get through it."
Turco said hasn't made any big off-season plans. He thought the Stars would still be playing.
"I wasn't ready for this to be over," he said.