In the final game this season at American Airlines Center the Dallas Stars went out in style. This was a game the injury-depleted Stars could easily had lost by multiple goals, playing a red-hot St. Louis Blues team fighting for the playoff lives and with a rookie goalie making the jump from the ECHL in his first career NHL start. Yet this team showed the same grit, determination and emotion that has defined the Dallas Stars for 16 years and secured a rare comeback victory when Trevor Daley's shot hit the back of the net just 16 seconds into overtime.
Despite the win, the Stars were officially eliminated from the playoffs as soon as the game went into overtime. The Blues reached 86 points on the season and hold the head-to-head tie breaker over the Stars should Dallas win out. It was a tough night for these hockey warriors, who clearly wanted to give the fans something to smile about in a season that has been filled with angst and frustration.
"Tonight was for the fans, it was fan appreciation night," Steve Ott said after the game. "We appreciate the Dallas fans no matter where we are in the standings, whether we’re on top or playing in the bottom. We just wanted to go out there and give them a good show."
After the game, players stood on the ice and raised their sticks in salute to the home crowd. It had been a tough season at home for the Stars, who lost a franchise record six games in a row at the AAC and finished with just 20 wins on home ice. With the sellout crowd showing their support for the team they adore, the players and team officials proceeded to give away memoriabilia, including signed sweaters the players pulled straight off their backs.
It was a tough road this season, one defined by injuries, fatigue and heartache. Yet nothing captured the essence of the Dallas Stars and their fans more than a signed spotted in the crowd:
"Not our time. Still our team."
The big story headed into the game was the first career NHL start by Stars' prospect Matt Climie. Spending the past season with Idaho of the ECHL, Climie was recalled on an emergency basis when Marty Turco was listed as doubtful for the game with a lower body injury. Saturday before the morning skate, coach Dave Tippett informed the 26 year old from Leduc, Alberta that he would be starting against the Blues.
Climie is a big, athletic goaltender who said he wasn't nervous about the start until he stood on the ice and the crowd starting filling the arena.
"It wasn’t too bad until I started looking around and seeing all the fans, then the butterflies came. I’ve just got to take it one day at a time and go back to Boise and hopefully have a good playoff run."
It wasn't smooth sailing for Climie, who allowed four goals on 24 shots. Two of the goals were nifty deflections resulting from poor defensive coverage in front of the net. While Climie could have been better controlling rebounds and finding the puck through traffic, his potential and talent were evident as he made several atheletic saves throughout the game. The most important thing was that he made the big saves when needed and was better than the guy on the other end of the ice.
"He played great tonight," Trevor Daley said. "I wish we could’ve done better in front of him defensively, but he made the big saves and got his first win.
It wasn't the prettiest win, but Climie did what he needed to help his team get two points.
"Climie had some nervousness, but he made some saves and some pucks found him," Tippett said. "He got the win and that’s what he wanted. You owe it to your team, teammates and ownership to play hard till the end and that’s what this team will do."
The Stars once again came out fired up in the first period, outshooting the Blues 10 to 5 in the opening frame and headed into the first intermission up 1-0 off a Loui Eriksson goal. Tom Wandell, centering a line between Brendan Morrison and Eriksson, laid a perfect pass into the slot after playing the puck off a scrambling Steve Mason. It was yet another slam-dunk goal for Eriksson and the Stars had yet another lead to start the game.
Like so many times before, that lead disappeared soon after. Three Blues goals in the 2nd period, including two from Brad Boyes, put St. Louis ahead and seemed to spell the writing on the wall for the Stars, who were just 1-5-1 in the previous seven games when scoring first.
Like so many games in this season, the Stars found themselves down in the third period and needed to make a comeback in the final minutes. While most games have ended in frustration, tonight the Stars were determined to have one last push to end the season on a high note.
Another Eriksson goal, his 36th of the season, just 35 seconds into the third tied the game at three and immediately gave the Stars confidence that another late-game breakdown would not happen on this night. Despite a T.J Oshie power-play goal six minutes later the Stars never gave up, pressuring the Blues and catching them off-guard with several speedy rushes up ice.
Steve Ott, known around the league as an agitator and all-around annoyance to most teams, has shown this season he is much more than just a physical player. Showing off his offensive skill, the Stars' MVP of this season grabbed the puck off the left boards and raced into the Blues' zone. Bull-rushing his way to the front of the net Ott slid the puck past Mason and tied the game with just over six minutes remaining. It was an exclamation mark on a great season by Ott.
The Stars never backed down and nearly won the game with several chances in the final minute. They continued the pressure in overtime, racing into the zone off the opening faceoff. Mike Modano briefly set up in the left corner and saw a streaking Daley coming off the blue line. A perfect pass ended in a Stars win.
"I found a hole and Mike, being the player he is, I think it just bounced off my stick and went in," Daley said.
Yet it was still a tough night for the Stars, who saw their slim playoff hopes dashed despite the big win.
"It’s been bittersweet for a while now," Tippett said. "You focus on the last few weeks and you make the playoffs by playing well all year. We were too inconsistent over the course of the year to give ourselves a chance. We had too many struggles over the season, that didn’t allow us to push through."
Despite only playing for pride at this point, the team is determined to never give up and end the season on a high note.
"It’s the double-edged sword," Ott said. "We knew we had a tough hill to climb, but we also wanted to go out extremely well and give the fans a good show.
"Next year look out because we’re coming back bigger, stronger and healthier."
Notes on the game:
- With his 36th goal of the season, Eriksson has scored the most goals of any Dallas Stars since Brett Hull had 39 in 2000-20001.
- Mark Fistric led the team with five blocked shots. (Derian Hatcher, anyone?)
BW's three stars of the game:
Tom Wandell, Dallas: Had the best game of his young NHL career, getting his first two career assists and generating several chances throughout the game with his speed and puck handling. Was the best player on the ice for the Stars in the third period.
Brad Boyes, St. Louis: Two goals and two assists and nearly had several more. Led his team with 5 shots on goal.
Loui Eriksson, Dallas: The Stars scoring leader was his usual slam-dunk self, netting two goals on two shots.