Friday, April 11, 2014 - Finish Line

The Dallas Stars hockey franchise has existed in some way, shape, or form for 46 seasons now.  With ancestors from Cleveland, it was born in Minnesota and then, as you are well aware of, moved to our fair city 21 years ago.  Then, a new house was moved into 12 years back and that is where they presently live.

During that stretch, many different men have managed and coached this team, and hundreds have played for it.  The clothing they have worn when representing the squad have changed several times, but the franchise has proudly worn its crest since the expansion of 1967.

But, this team is eager to carve its own mark into that proud history.

Let me clear:  Tonight is not the biggest night in franchise history.  Even if you think it is.  And if tonight against St Louis doesn't go perfectly (and when does this team do things the easy way?) then Sunday at Phoenix will also not be the biggest night in franchise history.

This team has won a Stanley Cup in 1999 - that beautiful grail that is impossible to attain, but when it is, it is only won in June.  They also played in the Stanley Cup Finals on three other occasions, 1981, 1991, and 2000.  In 1968, 1971, 1980, 1984, 1998, and 2008, this franchise also went to the "final 4" of the NHL playoffs.  Those years all likely rank as more historically significant than what we are watching right now, despite how badly my head hurts.

But, I'll be honest with you;  As much as I enjoyed many of those years and cherish the memories, they are not on my mind right now.  What is on my mind right now is this team and its quest to stop the longest post-season drought in franchise history - and it really isn't even close.  The last 5 years in the desert are on the verge of becoming 6 unless this band of brothers has another result in their bag this weekend.  In the history of the Minnesota-Dallas franchise, the longest playoff-less streak had been 3 years before this post-season sabbatical that is nearly twice that.

This team represents the future.  It has kids everywhere.  They fight like their predecessors would want.  They play fast and with skill.  They battle hard and don't give in.  They win often, and now appear to be ready for their next level.  They simply have to walk through that door.

This team, the 2013-14 Dallas Stars have a chance to lock up the 30th playoff berth in the franchise's history books this weekend. They are, as I type this, but 2 points from the finish line.  Of course, the finish line is actually the starting line for another race that is even more exciting, but let's put that aside for a bit longer (although surely that is a Christmas present that one cannot wait to unwrap).

This team was assembled over several years of building and is quick to tell you that they still believe they are just at the building stages.  This is not the finished product, and some of the higher-ups have even talked about how the playoffs this season are important, but perhaps a year early in the ladder back up the power ranks of the NHL mountain.  They don't want to just pop in once and then fade again.  They are trying to build something that sustains and that fights for Cups when it is fully developed.

That seems like a lofty goal for now, but then again, we as a hockey community have forgotten what spring-time playoff hockey was all about.  And that is what this season has been for me.  It has reminded me how awesome it can all be.  The building, the fans, the look on the player's faces when they score a goal, the fact that it is on my mind all day that today is the day for the big game.  And this has been the playoffs in a way - the race to get into the playoffs.  Contenders laugh at that premise - heck, we laughed at that premise when the Stars were running the Western Conference back in the day - but, I cannot describe how fun this ride has been since late January when the Stars found their game after a 10 game stretch that almost sunk their ship.

This team has demonstrated fantastic resolve, great ability, and now have emptied their tanks to put them in this spot where they have 3 different opportunities to walk through that door.  Opportunity #1 is the most attractive to me and likely the other 18,000+ who will be there tonight for Fan Appreciation Night.  As someone said on twitter last night, if you want to show the fans you appreciate them, win one more game on home ice (easier said that done).  But, the symmetry of walking through that post-season door with Ken Hitchcock, Brenden Morrow, and Steve Ott on the other side is almost spooky how fictional that all sounds about the Stars trying to build a new identity at the expense of the old in front of fans who feel strong emotions for both the old and the new.

Opportunity #2, if needed, would be Saturday night in Phoenix, where the Stars will physically be, but won't actually be playing.  The San Jose Sharks will play at Phoenix and if the Sharks win that game in regulation, than it is also game over.  Now, we can talk about whether "backing into the playoffs" due to the Coyotes losing their few games matters or not, but I am not sure we should be too choosy about how this mission gets accomplished.  They don't ask "how", they ask "how many" when totaling up the results at the end of the season.

Opportunity #3, if necessary, will cause a stressful weekend for all involved.  It means that Friday and Saturday put that Game #82 back in play and that there is a 1-game winner-take-all showdown against Dave Tippett, Mike Ribeiro, Jeff Halpern, and quite possibly, Mike Smith and the rest of those Phoenix Coyotes.  They have out-lasted the Stars at nearly every turn since Tippett was sent away, and that symmetry is not lost on us long-time observers, either.

If there is a play-in game for the playoffs, we should all enjoy what should be amazing theater, but there is no way most of us will be able to.  There is too much at stake and too much history and DFW sports baggage to forget about and move on.  Stars-Wild in 2011, Cowboys-Giants in 2011, Rangers-Orioles in 2012, Cowboys-Redskins in 2012, Rangers-Rays in 2013, Cowboys-Eagles in 2013 all were 1-game and advance scenarios to enter the post-season and all went horribly wrong.

That has nothing to do with Benn, Seguin, and their 18 buddies, but it has everything to do with most of us who are fighting the doubt that will not go away until the finish line is crossed.

This team has built something here.  Every one of the names bears mentioning because everyone has roped and everyone has rode.  But, they haven't closed the deal yet.  Is this a year with great memories with a bright future ahead or is it a playoff year with great memories with a bright future ahead?

They have one last hurdle to jump.

Let's hope, for the weekend headache count in the fan base, that the deal is closed on Friday, but be prepared to see this thing through until Sunday if necessary.

And, either way, let's hope those boys make more home games very necessary this month at place where nothing would be more fun than playoff hockey.

Cross that finish line, boys.

This team.

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