Tuesday, April 22, 2014
To watch the scene on Monday Night with your own naked eyes at American Airlines Center was a thing of beauty. The drought that has been long documented had technically ended last Wednesday night when the Stars entered the playoffs for the first time since 2008 when they played the Ducks in Game 1 out in California.
But, for the 19,120 in attendance, the drought properly ended last night for two equally weighted reasons of importance.
1) - Because for an evening it was clear to anyone who gave it a moment that the sleeping giant had not died. This city and this organization is and was capable of a hockey atmosphere that could rival any in the sport inside that building. The premise that the truly electric nights died with Reunion Arena have been disproven before, but the decibel levels on Monday were so shockingly intense that you could simply tell that the fan base that loves this game and needs only a sliver of competitive ambition from its favorite franchise was loving every second of it. The team was going to have an audience that would do everything they could to push their boys over the finish line, and if nothing else, it is motivation to extend this post-season just to drink from that fountain of adoration again with each home date.
2) - Because the Stars for the first time in this series were able to demonstrate on the scoreboard what many of us had felt we were seeing on the ice since Game 1. That they are not out-classed substantially by the Anaheim Ducks despite the discrepancy in the standings before this series began. We had documented the teams fortunes over the last 3 months and Dallas was actually the better team down the stretch and further, styles make fights and we could see that the speed of Dallas combined with their top end talent should really trouble the Ducks. Well, both of those elements seemed true in Anaheim, but unprovable on the scoresheet. On Monday, with a 3-0 win and a comfortable last period, they sent that message loud and clear to the league - this team is not out of their depths in the post-season. Not so far, anyway.
Either of those above reasons are enough to fire you up if you care about this franchise sufficiently to read a blog like this. But, combined? It is tough not to be over the moon with excitement now as we ponder Wednesday night and a chance to even this series with another home victory. But, let's discuss some of the best talking points to Game 3, first - or the first post-season win for this franchise in 2,165 days.
Any recap of Game 3 should start with the performance of Kari Lehtonen. This is a goaltender who does not need his quality debated for those who have never turned away from the franchise. Over the toughest years in this stretch, he has won games by himself and certainly been on a very short list (with Jamie Benn) for the discussion of who the Stars' best player has been since Mike Modano went away. Both of them have needed more help, but have fought valiantly over and over again until someone could build a team around them. But, for those who have questioned his quality, hopefully nights like last night are enough to demonstrate what he is all about. He stood tall and defended his goal brilliantly, aided by a team in front of him that were committed to limiting the chances. Kari had to make 37 saves in his playoff shutout, but did so with such calm and poise that he was easy choice for the #1 star. Lehtonen is not much of a talker, so perhaps with a bit more personality or Canadian roots he would be more highly regarded in the NHL. But, that doesn't matter like performances like this one. He proved he can grab a game and not budge an inch.
Benn, meanwhile, has looked just like a captain should through this series. He is a physical force who now knows his true power as a player who backs people off with his frame and can dominate physically as well as any power forward, but with mitts and skates that make his attack complete. His last year has been his most impressive step as he has matured into the captain role, which means making plays of significance and leading with a resolve that is most admirable. Adding Tyler Seguin to his side has allowed him to take the next step on the stat sheets, but Benn's best trick is showing that he has leadership quality that wasn't always obvious. There was a stretch of several years when the Stars' best were not able to equal some of the best in the league. Now, with Benn and Seguin together, you can see that the top of the roster is up for any match-up and challenge in any alley or street. They are able to fight you with skill and Benn is surely willing to battle you with a nice cross check or collision. And when he banged home a rebound at the end of the 1st period, he gave the Stars a lead they would never surrender in that breakthrough playoff performance.
The story of Game 3 that cannot be emphasized enough, though, is the team game that Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill tried to create over this last year. This is not an individual sport where the team with the best player wins. This is a fantastic team game where the gang with the best 20 players on a given night (19 to be exact) will generally end up on top. The fact that 11 players (12 if Brenden Dillon can return in this series) of the 18 skaters are playing in their very first playoff battle is just craziness. This is a time of year where we talk about playoff experience and know-how as currency that is indispensable. The Stars are disregarding it and almost seem willing to field an entire team of first-timers, and the response they are getting is quite impressive. From Valeri Nichushkin's extremely well-timed goal to Patrick Nemeth's performance that is blowing people away defensively, it is clear that every player that gets a jersey wants to prove he deserves it. If playoff newbies like Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt are going to play like that on every shift, then perhaps we over-rate the improvement that could come with experience. The truth is, those two, along with their running buddy Cody Eakin have been playing with their pants on fire since October. They have just turned it up another notch now that they can get under the skin of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on a routine basis.
The penalty killing was superb last night, and some of the extra curricular activities from the aforementioned might make that necessary. But, that is part of the team game. Play to the edge, and if you cross the line and go over the edge, you mates pick you up and kill off your transgressions with a timely kill. That is what good teams do this time of year. And, yes, the Stars appear to be a pretty good team.
In this space, I have spent a lot of time complaining about a lack of a "true ace" to steal a baseball term. I believe in the dominance of a defense group, because Derian Hatcher, Sergei Zubov, Darryl Sydor, Richard Matvichuk, and Craig Ludwig taught me, and the personnel department has not been able to assemble that quality back there at this point. However, a franchise does what it can, when it can, and I am required by my conscience to applaud this group for holding up their end of the bargain. Those who stand at those posts presently attempt to prove that I have undersold their own ability and it should be recognized because they aren't here without those guys digging deep. And maybe the most rewarding aspect of this season is not the quality of Lehtonen, Benn, or Seguin - anyone who watches hockey knew they would be good. Rather, it is seeing someone like Trevor Daley rise up and maybe play the best hockey of his career right now. I have always liked parts of his game, but to see him and Alex Goligoski take on the ice time and the assignments that they have and still battle with energy and composed rage is awesome. Daley has really stepped up big.
But, go down that blue-line and it keeps impressing you. If anyone had Jordie Benn as a #3 defensemen on the next Stars playoff team playing 23:29 of near flawless hockey against that team, then you should run to Vegas and try to get rich in futures. Because, I will confess, I never thought he could do it. And Nemeth? That kid looks like he is ready to battle and not take any garbage from anyone on every shift.
The Stars are a team built on speed, so it was clear to all of us that teams would attempt to try to make them play a grinding game and see how badly this young team wants it. Surely if a team is fast, they must hate a battle, right? That is clearly what Bruce Boudreau wanted when he ordered the game to be played against the boards and for the Ducks to come out with such a defensive posture. Drag the young Stars out to the deep water and see if they can swim, right?
The response has been clear. Perry and Getzlaf are incredibly talented players, but much of their game is played by being bullies and then being protected. Taking them out of that comfort zone is the name of the game. Now, they are uncomfortable being surrounded by these pests who they have never heard of before, and are getting quite annoyed. Boudreau even rolled out the reasonably talented sluggo, Patrick Maroon, on to the Perry and Getzlaf line to get them some more might and space, but that backfired when the Garbutt/Roussel/Eakin trio scored the 3rd goal because the wheels were too quick in transition.
It is tough to forecast where this series is going, except for the fact that the Stars now know the belong, if there was ever doubt. The next chapter will be even more intense, and I am happy to report that the team seems interested in pushing this run a lot further than one magical night in April. The Ducks response will be measured and their only objective was to get a split in Dallas, which is still very much in play in Game 4.
But, for now, smile. It is back. All of it. The anger, the electricity, the nerves, the high-5s with total strangers, the headaches, the enemies, and the noise.
Ah, the glorious noise.
Bring on Wednesday.