An hour before the drop of the puck you could sense the growing level of excitement in the arena as more and more fans packed the concourses in anticipation of a gigantic matchup between the Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks. With the game having tremendous implications in the Western Conference playoff race and the battle for the Pacific division crown the fans realized that the high-stakes hockey which makes this sport so great had finally returned to Dallas, with a team you can't help but love playing their hearts out on the ice.
The Stars responded with perhaps their gutsiest win of the season on the back of a tremendous performance by Kari Lehtonen in net and some clutch play by Jamie Benn and Tomas Vincour in the third period. The crowd, from the drop of the puck, was roaring with the ups and downs of the game in an atmosphere that hasn't existed since the 2008 playoffs.
As the crowd emptied from the American Airlines Center Thursday night you could feel it in the air, an electricity that hasn't been present in a very long time. Chants of "let's go Stars" and honking horns were heard from Victory Plaza to the West End as jubilation poured from the AAC to the streets, with fans screaming their joy into the chilly night air. It was reminiscent of the old days at Reunion Arena where each win was followed by intense celebration in the parking garages around downtown Dallas.
The celebration was cathartic in a way as it felt as if fans were releasing a mix of relief, joy and excitement after several years of intense frustration with a directionless team with no owner and no true improvement to hold onto. With Tom Gaglardi now providing stable and dedicated ownership and Glen Gulutzan's team finding their winning ways at the perfect time, fans finally have a sense that this hockey team they have loved for so long is finally back from the abyss in which they temporarily disappeared.
There is still a lot of hockey left to play, but that hockey playoff fever is finally back in Dallas -- and there's absolutely nothing that could be better.
For the Dallas Stars and their fans the past several years have been incredibly difficult to suffer through. While every team goes through it's struggles the Stars were in a unique situation of being a team with no owner and no ability to effectively improve the on-ice product. GM Joe Nieuwendyk worked hard to maintain the Stars as competitively as possible but the impending departure of Brad Richards forced a change in strategy that has now paid off -- when the Stars needed it to the most.
From the very start of this season the Stars were the underdogs, a basement-payroll team that had lost it's leading scorer that summer and traded away a top-six forward the previous season. The Stars responded by building a team that was focused on the team aspect, of four lines that could put pressure on the opponent throughout the game and play a consistently strong defensive game as well.
New coach Glen Gulutzan was hired to lead this team movement and for the first month it worked, in large part due to the incredible play by Lehtonen in net. What we've seen this season, however, is that there is always a learning curve for teams headed in new directions -- especially with rookie coaches still learning the vast differences between the AHL and the NHL.
Since the All-Star break the Stars have been a completely new team. After the season hit rock bottom with a loss to Nashville just over three weeks ago, the players and coaches refocused their efforts as they departed for a road game in Montreal. Since that game, Gulutzan and his coaching staff has simplified the approach of the team and changed the strategic focus during games to better take advantage of his players' strengths.
On top of the strategic changes the Stars have become a team in the truest sense of the word. With trade rumors running rampant the locker room tightened up and every player took it upon themselves to ensure that there should be no reason to break up something that could potentially be great.
The Stars aren't the most talented team in the NHL and they're winning right now in large part because of some incredibly good goaltending. Yet it's their resilience, their ability to recover when adversity strikes, that makes the fans love this team more and more with each passing game.
Against San Jose, the Stars surrendered three absolutely gut-wrenching goals and each time found a way to respond. The Stars haven't dominated every team on this incredible 8-0-1 run and have relied on this ability to bounce back several times -- proving just how precarious this run truly is.
"I thought we played real gutsy," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. "We played hard. It's not easy coming back off a road swing and getting that type of performance, but Kari Lehtonen certainly gave us an opportunity to stay in this game long enough to get two points."
Fans will stand behind a team not just for winning but for showing the heart and resilience necessary to respond to adversity. The Stars have players up and down the roster that make good things happen with hard work and intensity and while the skill players on this roster have been incredible, it's the ability of players like Tomas Vincour to step up when needed that will propel this team into the postseason.
"It feels great. It's a huge two points for us," Vincour said. "It doesn't matter who scores the goal, now is the time to be getting two points every night. Every goal is huge for us and I am glad that I could score a goal but, like I said, it doesn't matter who scores the goal."
Vincour, who has been up and down the roster this season, finally saw his hard work payoff when he scored the biggest goal of his career so far with just over a minute remaining in regulation. This goal wasn't about skill, it was about old-fashioned hard work and grit and it exemplified everything that we are growing to love about the Stars this season.
To cap off an incredible night Vincour was looked upon to be the hero in the shootout -- something that Gulutzan says he has faith in with a player he knows very well from the AHL.
"Vinny's good in those shootouts, we've had him in Austin and he was good there," said Gulutzan. "He did it for us tonight and that goal at the end (of regulation) was huge. But I thought that Vinny was teetering throughout the game, I thought he was heavy on pucks, he was quick on pucks, I tried to get him a little more ice towards the end there and he got rewarded, that's for sure."
This magical run by the Stars could end at any moment but with each passing game comes more faith that this team can rebound from adversity better than we've seen at any other time this season -- or in the past three years. The Stars have been tremendously lucky at times and have had to rely on elite-level goaltending to crawl to the top of the Pacific Division -- but more than luck, changes in how the players have been used and employed have paid off and show signs that the past three weeks aren't just a fluke, but hopefully a sign of what is still to come.
No matter what happens, the city of Dallas finally has the fever of playoff hockey once more. Judging by the reaction of fans at the AAC and after the game in downtown, it's apparent that there may be nothing better than that incredible feeling of watching our Dallas Stars play meaningful hockey once more.