One of the great truths in sports that is not discussed nearly enough is that only one team's season ever ends in smiles. Everyone else who makes the postseason - no matter how great things seemed to be going - will wake up one morning and feel extremely disappointed with the crushing end of their campaign.
The Dallas Stars are having that morning.
Last night, a hopeful sellout crowd that believed they were about to see something memorable from their boys witnessed a bloodletting that they will not soon forget as the St Louis Blues skated in and quickly crushed the young Stars, advancing to the Western Conference Finals with a Game 7 win, 6-1.
The story of the game and now the offseason was the ridiculously bad goaltending that the Stars received from Kari Lehtonen in the first Game 7 of his career. The irony was that the longtime netminder played the best game of his career in Game 6 on Monday to preserve the series only to come back and play potentially the worst game of his career last night. This simply demonstrates his tenure in Dallas in a clear and frustrating nutshell. His ceiling is very high in that his best nights are fantastic (albeit too rare), but his wild flashes in inconsistency demonstrate that his floor is so low that he just does not fit the part of being a highly compensated ($6 million a year), playoff goaltender.
The Stars have what we call a substantial issue in goal. Which, ironically, is where this season started. The progress has been impressive and the growth has been wonderful. This team has transformed from a lottery team to a Western Conference regular season champion in an incredibly short time, and this team has youth and talent everywhere. But, like the 1997 team that was built for greatness but needed a few more pieces, this team still needs to find its final few parts. Like Eddie Belfour then, this team clearly needs a goalie that can handle his business on a more consistent basis.
As they say in our great sport, "Goaltending is 60 percent of hockey, unless it is bad. Then it is 100 percent."
Last night, it was 100 percent. The Stars were planning a long night of drama in which a single inch might decide advancing from golfing. A single save or check could decide this series - and this series could decide the entire Stanley Cup.
This plan became quickly undone when they couldn't get a save. Not one. All night.
Five minutes into the affair after Vladimir Tarasenko dropped like a sack of potatoes after contact with Alex Goligoski, the Blues went on the power play. On the ensuing man advantage, the Blues did what they have done so well, crash the net with numbers and might, with fight until the puck gets past Lehtonen into the goal. Robby Fabbri continued his fine postseason with the goal to cause the arena to gasp as the Blues strike first, 1-0.
But, the Stars certainly did not allow that scenario to knock them out after a season where they responded so well. And they were digging hard to get back to level in that first period. Mattias Janmark found Val Nichushkin on the far post for what appeared to be a no-brain chance, but Val hit the post. Jason Spezza with a big chance from the slot that Brian Elliott saved. Antoine Roussel had a redirect of a point shot that just missed the corner of the net. Jamie Benn circled with the puck and intentions to get the goal back. Radek Faksa was sprung and in all alone. Elliott made the save there, too. The Blues were getting Game 7 goaltending, but it still seemed a matter of time before the pressure the Stars were putting on the net would erase that early marker.
And then, the whole house of cards collapsed. With 2:21 left, an innocent shot from the corner ate Lehtonen up and Tarasenko had an unexpected goal that deflated the evening. But, as if fate had smiled on Dallas on just the right evening, a goal review from the Stars video room found that Tarasenko's skate was offside on the zone entry and the goal was disallowed. It is the type of rule that should probably be changed by the league this summmer - the player was not offsides, his skate was over the blue-line, but not touching it (there is no competitive advantage unless the player is actually in the zone prematurely. If he is hovering over the blue-line he is not receiving an advantage at all) - but full credit to the Stars for catching the play, getting a reprieve, and preserving the Stars chance to advance.
Sadly, what everyone assumed about that Tarasenko goal - that Lehtonen might have left on one of his mental trips where the puck seems slippery and shrinks and the only solution is to get him out of the game - was verified only 43 seconds later as this time. Paul Stastny scored from a similarly ridiculous angle and the meltdown was unstoppable. 2-0. It felt worse, but if they could just get to the room, they could try to salvage the game in the final 40 minutes.
Is this where Lindy Ruff made a mistake? Of course. Even he admits it. You normally don't pull your goaltender after two goals, but this was Game 7 and this was actually the third goal he had allowed. More than anything, Ruff knows that he does not have a mentally strong goaltender when adversity strikes. Lehtonen has some positive traits to be sure, but shaking off bad goals is not one of them. We have seen it over and over. He can't right a ship when it goes off path. He needed to go get him there. Ruff likely was hoping that this evening - so close to that wonderful Game 6 - was going to be different.
90 seconds later, it happened again. This time off a harmless point shot in the final seconds of the period. The Blues knew that Lehtonen wasn't stopping a beach ball, so they sent one more shot in through traffic from the blue-line and of course, it scored, too. Patrick Bergland scored a goal that no doubt shocked him, too. 19:57 into Game 7, the game was gone. 3-0.
The remainder of the evening included thousands of people staring off into the distance wondering how such a magical season ended with a humiliation of this magnitude. There have been some amazingly memorable nights in 2015-16, but this one will color the perception of the entire campaign to many, and that is unfortunate.
This is a franchise that has made substantial progress in their transformation into a rising power and likely learned that getting to the contender level is still usually a step or two from getting to be a champion. In fact, those final steps are often never actually made by so many who aspire to get to the top. The Stars have now figured out much of the journey, but whether they can sustain and then improve upon their progress is going to depend on what they learned from this run and how they try to improve upon it further.
Jim Nill is already spending the morning sorting through his final evaluations of this season and is certainly trying to put things in proper perspective. He can't knee jerk and react to everything with emotion. He has to attempt to estimate how different everything might have been had Tyler Seguin been available in the last two months. This is certainly part of sports - losing a key player at a key time - but to argue that one of the top 10 players in hockey couldn't tip the scales in a 7-game series would be extremely foolish. Seguin would have made a significant difference. Enough to beat St Louis? We will never know.
That said, the idea of winning 16 playoff games with the duo of Lehtonen and Antti Niemi always seemed farfetched to most of the hockey world. And that isn't just on them, it is on the entire hockey philosophy the Stars have built with smallish puck handlers on the back who are not pushing anyone out of the crease. Stephen Johns will help, but the fact remains that the entire top four on the blue-line remains at an average of about 180-185 pounds. When St. Louis storms the net with David Backes and friends all around 220, the team still looks overrun. This makes the goalie's job all the more difficult. And that is important to remember when everyone acts like finding a perfect goaltender is the solution. Defense is a shared job, and any goalie in the world would have to figure out how to win in the playoffs with a small blue-line. At some point of every series, you have to protect the castle. And the Stars are still not built to do that.
The Stars are a fantastic story and quite possibly the franchise in D-FW closest to the city's next championship. But, they have work to do and changes to make. They ran into a matchup that did not suit them. They seem like a team built to deal with Chicago and while that is a good plan, St. Louis presents completely different tactical challenges, and the team doesn't seem well rounded enough to beat all styles at the top of the league.
St. Louis outscored them 25-14. That means the highest scoring offense in hockey averaged 2 goals per game over 2 weeks. Ken Hitchcock played to his reputation. He can take a great offense and bring it to its knees. He did. Full marks to that St. Louis organization that looks like it might be their time.
St. Louis outscored them on the power play, 6-2. St. Louis received goaltending that was superior by a wide margin - 93% to 87% save percentages. You cannot lose across the board in all of these categories and have a chance.
And yet, until the final few minutes of the first period of Game 7 the Stars had every chance - even without one of their most important pieces.
As you walk around with slumped shoulders today because a season and a dream spilled all over the floor last night, you should feel better knowing that this team looks like it is on its way and has a very bright future. Things happen and things change in pro sports, but most who follow this sport know that the Stars are trending in the right direction.
But, the work remains. It was a very impressive year that revived the hockey fan base from its dormant state of many years. A division title and a playoff round were both accomplished, demonstrating great strides. Many young players played their first season in the NHL and it appears they are all capable of staying around. This current team will be broken up a bit and new pieces will be added. There will most certainly be trades and buyouts and goodbyes as the Stars have free-agency decisions on several players (including many of those undersized defensemen).
Never has a more promising season ended in a more humiliating fashion. Just one day back everything felt different and dreams of June hockey seemed reasonable. Now, the team must go back to the bottom of the hill and start the climb all over again. Their adversaries will certainly be looking to make that climb even more difficult next season.
That is all true. But, this team should shake off the amazingly disappointing ending, realize the distance they have yet to travel, and prepare to get back to work in September. They appear to have plenty to be excited about moving forward.