I know what you're saying: "Why is a devastating, heart breaking loss on this list?"
The answer is simple, really. Without this loss, the Dallas Stars would never have won the Stanley Cup just two years later.
The 1996-1997 season is when it all started to come together for the Dallas Stars, who had missed the playoffs the previous season with coach Bob Gainey turning over the reigns to new Ken Hitchcock, so he could focus better on his General Manager duties. After winning just 26 games in 1995-96, the Stars exploded to put up the best season in franchise history -- winning 48 games for 104 points on the season, a division title and the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Hockey in Dallas had been popular from the moment the puck dropped in 1993 but this was the year when the sport truly exploded, thanks to the extraordinary exploits of Mike Modano who led the Stars in goals, assists and points that season by a healthy margin. The Stars looked like heavy favorites in the first round against the Edmonton Oilers and many expected Dallas to easily contend for at least the Conference title.
It seemed that Dallas was going to be able to cruise through the first round and the Oilers were merely an afterthought in the process. Instead, we were treated to one of the all-time great seven-game series in NHL playoff history and perhaps the most heartbreaking loss this franchise had ever experienced in Game 7.
And it changed everything.
That season the Dallas Stars were an exceptionally veteran and experienced team, with over half the roster well over the age of 29. The Stars had Mike Modano leading the offensive charge but this was a team built on grit, determination and defense -- the second leading scorer on the team had just 53 points that season. Instead, the Stars were led by veteran players such as Grant Ledyard, Andy Moog, Dave Reid, Bob Bassen and Guy Carbonneau -- a core of proven leadership and grit that the entire Stars season and playoff hopes were centered around.
Neal Broten would also make his final appearance in Dallas that season, traded to the Stars mid-season and playing 20 games for his original franchise. He would put up 15 points in those games and it was thought that Broten would be the final piece of the veteran puzzle for the Stars, although the great forward would only play in two of the seven games against Edmonton.
The series against the Oilers was epic, with the Stars easily winning Game 1 before being thoroughly dominated at home in Game 2. If the Oilers were making lists of the greatest games in franchise history, Game 3 would be at the top of the list -- the Oilers came back from a late three-goal deficit to eventually win in overtime. From there it was back and forth, with the Stars winning a hard-fought game on the road to force a Game 7 at home.
It was a physical, brutal series and one that kicked off what would be an intense postseason rivalry for the immediate future.
I'm not going to go through the specifics of Game 7, a back and forth affair that featured some of the best goaltending I've ever seen in my life from Curtis Joseph and an absolutely torrid pace for most of the game. Neither team could gain control of the game, with the Stars playing as physical and nasty as we had ever seen them -- with the Stars eventually outplaying the Oilers as the game wore on with only CuJo standing in their way. The Stars had multiple chances to put the game out of reach while holding onto a 3-2 lead, yet failed to take advantage of multiple opportunities.
The NHL Network had an extraordinary feature on this series, which you can see below. Game 7 starts at the 31:30 mark.
What many people have forgotten over the years is just how close this game came to being won by the Stars, just minutes before the Marchant goal. Joe Nieuwendyk, being tackled to the ice by a defenseman, had the puck come to his stick with a wide open net staring him in the face. He was able to get off a hard shot, off the ice, yet Curtis Joseph somehow found a way to make the save of the century and save his team from an overtime loss.
Just a few shifts later, it was all over for the Stars.
I'll never forget where I was when Grant Ledyard stumbled at the blue line, allowing Todd Marchant to storm into the zone unimpeded and score over the right shoulder of Andy Moog. Sitting on the floor of my living room, looking up at the television, I couldn't believe what I just saw. It wasn't supposed to happen this way, not like that. Such a heartbreaking way to lose such an incredible series and game, and see the season end so abruptly. We had bigger plans that the Oilers, we were supposed to be headed to the Stanley Cup that year.
After that loss, the Stars changed directions a bit in their quest for the Stanley Cup.
Andy Moog would move on, playing one more season with the Montreal Canadiens before retiring. The Stars, realizing just how important elite goaltending truly was, aggressively pursued Eddie Belfour in free agency -- who immediately become the major difference maker the Stars needed. The Stars would remain a veteran-heavy team, yet one that had more experience for their young superstars and more time to come together as a team after such a devastating loss.
The Stars would also focus more on defense and defensive responsibility, aided by Belfour in net and a Mike Modano who was embracing a new approach to hockey. That series loss would also guide the decisions made by Bob Gainey, who realized how important skill was even to a defensive team, with the Stars making the crucial move of acquiring Mike Keane in March of 1997.
This loss was one of the toughest I've ever experienced in my time as a sports fan, but we must not forget just how incredible this game truly was from beginning to end. This loss was also instrumental in the development of this team and the players, especially when you consider that the Stars lost three games in overtime against the Oilers and surrendered leads in the final minutes twice on the way to losses.
This was a series loss that had to happen for the Stars to grow, and the result just a few short years later was a Stanley Cup Championship.