Monday, April 28, 2014
The NHL Playoffs are awesome from nearly every perspective. They are an endurance test that requires you to address and defend every weakness your team may possess. It asks you to dig deep and figure out ways out of messes that are far beyond anything the regular season asks of you. The provide memories of victory that can carry you through a long, hot summer.
And, of course, as we learned again last night, the suddenness of defeat can overtake a delirious arena in such quick fashion that the occupants file out by the thousands in near complete silence. No matter how great everyone feels, a loose puck finds the wrong player and a giant crowd goes from ecstatic to silent in the blink of an eye.
Todd Marchant skated around Grant Ledyard and silenced the Reunion Arena crowd in 1997.
Jason Arnott received a puck from the corner and beat Eddie Belfour at Reunion to end the 2000 playoffs.
Andrew Brunette scooped a rebound past Marty Turco to end the 2006 playoffs at the AAC.
And now, in the most harmful result from the most harmless shift, Nick Bonino finishes off a rally that he began late in the 3rd and the stunned silence of the American Airlines Center was deafening. The Ducks beat the Stars 4 games to 2 and advance past the first round after being pushed hard by the upstart young Dallas side..
The scene afterward was extremely emotional. First, the Ducks, who had showed us all how to hate again as only the hockey playoffs can, celebrate the absurd rally and kill shot on Dallas ice after spending pretty much all of their 3 games in Dallas finishing 2nd in every category. Their celebration was one of relief and conquering as they win their first playoff series in 5 years. That, with that organization's help, should demonstrate to us how difficult it is to find success this time of year. With Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in their primes, that organization waits 5 years between series victories. No wonder they celebrated like they did.
They will advance, while locally, hockey season ends. That, I suppose was the note-worthy moment from last night as after the gutting was completed, the team stayed on the ice to salute their fans one last time. Most of the fans stayed to salute their team one last time, as well. Despite very little notification that the run was about to end, the run was fantastic. In one way it lasted only 6 games, but in another way, it started last summer and felt like a very meaningful season that represented the start of something bigger.
It would be unfair to continue to move the bar and to not recognize how difficult it is to accomplish everything you want to accomplish in sports over night. It is insulting to the process to believe you can just show up and have it all figured out in one spring. The object of the season was to reintroduce your franchise to the playoffs and in doing so, remind the city that hockey lives here and plans on participating for many years to come.
That mission was accomplished over this month of April where the team secured its long-awaited playoff spot and then battled hard to do something in the playoffs once they arrived. They certainly had the Ducks on the run and the most stubborn of us will argue that the Stars seldom looked like the 2nd best team in the series. That may be true, but it doesn't matter. They lost 4 games and the details don't change that fact.
Now, part of making the playoffs again is closely examining why it didn't last longer. For that, it comes down to the simple scenario in which you hold a 2-goal lead with 2:10 to play on your home ice and give it all back.
It starts with the Ducks pulling their goalie and with the man-advantage digging in the corners. Corey Perry uses his long reach and the very end of his stick to push the puck away from Alex Goligoski and to his team-mate Nick Bonino behind the Dallas net. Then, Bonino in short order skates around the front and is not met by a bruising hit, but rather Kari Lehtonen who is in an extreme crouched position that leaves the very top of the net exposed. Bonino makes no mistake, quickly roofs the puck, and the Stars are shell-shocked after winning the face-off cleanly. Further examination suggests Trevor Daley needed to do more to get the puck out of the zone after that win, and Lehtonen needed to stand his ground better. 4-3.
From there, the sense of danger was everywhere, and the seconds seemed like minutes. Anaheim rested its big boys for the first portion of the remaining 2 minutes with their goalie back in, but as the clock fell under a minute, off goes Jonas Hiller and on comes the extra attacker yet again.
This time, the Antoine Roussel has a chance on perhaps finding the empty netter to clinch Game 6, but Cam Fowler skates with him to keep the Ducks alive. Then comes a huge net drive and amidst the chaos Lehtonen secures the puck and forces a face-off with :41.6 to go.
Now, Lindy Ruff selects Eakin, Garbutt, Jordie Benn, and Brenden Dillon to try to ward off the Ducks onslaught and man-advantage. The Ducks with their size are over-running the Stars' crease and they simply have to survive another shift to bring this to a Game 7. The face-off goes to the Ducks who win the puck back to the point and Getzlaf. The Ducks work it to Perry who looks for Bonino on the 1-timer, but ultimately gets the puck back in the corner. He then fakes a pass to Getzlaf which gets Eakin to move, and that leaves a path for Perry to get close as Jordie Benn is stationary next to the crease, with Garbutt and Dillon on the opposite side of Lehtonen trying to deal with Francois Beauchemin and Bonino. Perry skates in and the initial shot is taken care of, but from there, the chaos ensues with 4 Ducks and 4 Stars all right in the blue paint in front of Lehtonen. The next few seconds are desperation from both sides and impossible to dissect. Bodies hit the floor and Lehtonen tries to find the puck. The Stars would love a whistle, but no whistle is properly given as the puck remained loose the entire time.
As Eakin waits for the puck to come free, Devante Smith-Pelly stands on the edge of the crease and the puck slides nicely to him. Lehtonen is prone and without a stick and trying to cover the opening which is absolutely the proper idea by making himself big, but Smith-Pelly has too much time to receive the puck and from close distance gets the puck high and into the net. Could Eakin have eliminated that threat? Maybe, but he can't be in two places at the same time and he made the choice to stay high in case it squirted to where Getzlaf could skate in and hammer it. So, he chooses his poison and the Ducks administer it without mercy. 4-4.
The details are worth examining, but the conclusion is simple: you simply cannot allow an opponent to over-run your net for 2 goals in 2 minutes in the playoffs. The Ducks brought as much pressure as could be brought in the final several minutes and the Stars could not hold them off. That falls to every person on the ice as the Ducks found a gear that the Stars couldn't match. When it mattered most, the Ducks were able to ask questions in which the Stars had no answer.
From there, the intermission allowed the Stars to get their bearings and the crowd to recover, but in the over-time, it produced the end of a fun year in the most unpleasant and unimpressive way. The Stars kept rolling 4 lines and on a shift that featured 3 rookies (Mueller, Nichushkin, and Nemeth) as well as a veteran you had just scratched 3 games straight (Cole), Dallas lost their men in their own end and Bonino had a wrist shot from close that he buries past a defeated Lehtonen. 5-4.
Lindy Ruff built this thing on rookies being trusted, but perhaps that was a bridge too far as the Ducks were able to get a goal from their own depth because the Stars depth dropped their guard for a moment too long.
5-4. Game over. Season over.
It is at this point where we entertain the exercise of blame and satisfaction simultaneously.
For, with opportunity comes examination about why the opportunity was wasted. This team should be playing a Game 7 on Tuesday night, and they won't. They won't because they were unable to nurse home the lead and conceded 3 times in less than 5 minutes with their seasons on the line.
Perhaps we saw the full effect of depleted resources and exhausted defensemen trying to hold off a bigger team at the net. Perhaps we saw a goalie who has limited playoff success showing his warts for all the world to see in a series where he rarely seemed to find his A-game. Perhaps we saw a 1-seed dig deep when forced to do so and gather themselves and send the 8-seed back from whence they came.
I assume it is a combination of it all. Add in the fact that while Jamie Benn had many memorable plays, young Tyler Seguin was never able to convert his chances into goals and left the playoffs with tons of shots and just 1 goal to show for it (which is how last year ended in Boston).
Seguin is a star, Nichushkin is another young, fantastic talent, Lehtonen is a strong goalie, and Daley and Goligoski proved their value this spring. But, that is the cruel truth, isn't it? On one hand, you are there only because they pulled you to this point, but now, you look at them and ask if they could have done more. Dillon was brave to recover, but looked like he rushed back. Jordie Benn did everything anyone could expect, and yet was on the scene of the crime in the 4th and 5th goals.
Ruff led this whole thing with masterful coaching and yet, to lose with your 4th line on the ice stings badly. GM Jim Nill built this team to have speed and youth, but in those final 5 minutes, you wonder what experience and size might have done to clear the crease of the threats. They both were huge "net positives" and I am anxious to see what they wish to do next with this roster.
In other words, congratulations to the organization for showing us they could achieve these heights. With these heights come full arenas and full cash registers again. But, also, with it comes more critical eyes, raised expectations, and demands for accountability.
I refuse to forget the original claim that these playoffs were casino money and anything accomplished is a start in the right direction. But, I also can't lie to myself and act like this team wasn't capable of even more.
The process has begun. There is promise and future spring nights ahead. And yes, there is work to be done, as well. The 25-or-so players who gave us this great season will not all be back. The remodel is off to a great start and now we can imagine what lies ahead.
A great season ends with a horrible 5 minutes. And like a painting, your opinion can easily rest on your perspective.
But, this much is true: Hockey appears to live and breath in Dallas, Texas. And for that, I consider this all very successful.