"I see something special with this group of guys. I've been in a lot of dressing rooms, and there's something special with this dressing room." - Dallas Stars General Manager Jim Nill
If you've been following the Dallas Stars this season then you've most likely heard that quote, or something similar to it, said by Nill before.
Although that exact quote was pulled from a live interview by Nill on Badd Radio on 1310 The Ticket, and reemphasized in this excellent post from Brandon Worley, prior to the trade deadline, it's a strong feeling that Nill has made no secret about on multiple different occasions: there's just something special about this current Dallas Stars team.
When the idea first started popping up it was easy to be skeptical about it. The Stars haven't made the playoffs in five straight seasons, notably losing their composure and limping towards the finish line in most of them, and have again had to fight tooth and nail to simply be in the playoff race this year. Even worse, the Stars suffered through an 1-8-1 stretch to start 2014, one of the worst slumps in franchise history.
What's so special about any of that?
Yet, as this season has waged on, the overall atmosphere of doubt and worry that has surrounded the team in recent memory has begun to change. Little by little, like rays of sunlight slowly breaking through an overcast sky, the Stars have begun scoring necessary goals, getting timely saves, and overall finding ways to win games that they need to win, things that simply did not happen very often for the team the past few seasons.
There was no clearer evidence of this than in Tuesday night's game against the St. Louis Blues.
The stage could not have possibly been set any worse for the Stars. Less than 24 hours after the tragedy that occurred with Rich Peverley and the postponed game against Columbus, the team, still incredibly shaken from the incident, traveled to St. Louis to face the Blues, the number one team in the entire NHL, in their home barn. The Stars were also without Kari Lehtonen, their top goaltender who is still recovering from a concussion, as well as forward Alex Chiasson, who was negatively affected by anxiety after being a first-hand witness to Pevrley's terrifying collapse on the Stars bench and was given the night off. Barely holding onto the 8th and final playoff spot, the Stars desperately needed whatever points that they could get.
If this was one of the Dallas Stars squads from 2009-2012, teams that seemed to chronically crumble when faced with massive adversity, the outlook probably would have been grim. Given the circumstances, it would have been easy to take the loss and trot out an aggregation of entirely valid excuses as to why the team failed.
But Tuesday night didn't go down that way. This new and improved version of the Stars, as they have already many times this season, chose to take the hard route and were rewarded for it. They matched the Blues tit-for-tat all night long and, through a stunning display of heart and resolve, came away with an emotional 3-2 overtime win.
"Well, I thought tremendous effort by our guys, really thought their focus was good, their determination, it was a hard-fought game both ways," said head coach Lindy Ruff after the game. "But I thought the focus was really good."
"Yeah, obviously last night was a scary situation, but you know today's a new day," added captain Jamie Benn, who scored the overtime winner. "We were thinking about Rich back home, but I thought we did a great job getting mentally ready for this game and we're still in a playoff hunt here. We're still in a big playoff push and we found a way to get two points."
What's truly amazing is that the victory, a wonderful display of resolve and overcoming obstacles, was not a one-off thing: it's actually becoming quite commonplace for the Stars this season.
Before the 2013-2014 season even began, the deck was stacked quite highly against the Stars thanks to some major retooling in the offseason. New general manager. New head coach. New first line center, Tyler Seguin, who came to Dallas after a controversial exit in Boston. A new role and a new challenge for Benn, who took on the added responsibility of being team captain. Heck, even new jerseys. Chemistry is an important thing for a successful hockey team, and the Stars needed to find theirs on the fly right out of training camp.
Despite the early challenges, and new ones encountered along the way, such as the loss of veteran defenceman Stephane Robidas to a broken leg, the Stars have not only persevered, but risen to the occasion time after time.
First came the emotional October 28th return to Buffalo for Lindy Ruff, who spent 25 years of his life in that city as both a player and a coach. Behind the opposing team's bench for the first time in his career, the Stars pulled off a tight 4-3 victory over the Sabres.
Just weeks later, the Stars' early season "Travelling Homecoming Float," as Mike Heika described it, headed to Boston to face the Bruins, the former team of Seguin. Seguin was abandoned by a Bruins team that once regarded him highly, and was ostracized by the local media.
Unfettered, the Stars came to play, and took the Bruins to extra time thanks to this memorable penalty shot goal by unlikely hero Vernon Fiddler:
It was there, in the shootout, that the Stars took the win, thanks to goals by Seguin and Peverley, who was also traded from Boston to Dallas, capping a storybook ending.
The Stars have even taken down the defending Stanley Cup Champions. When Dallas took on the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center, one of the toughest opposing arenas in the NHL, Antoine Roussel provided another clutch 3rd period penalty shot goal, one that Hawks fans undoubtedly remember.
If Dallas' win over the Blues on Tuesday night wasn't their biggest win of the season, then their victory over the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night, on Mike Modano Night, certainly was.
It couldn't have been a more perfect setting: the Stars honored Modano, their iconic greatest player and face of the franchise, with a touching pregame tribute and the retiring of his #9 jersey by the organization. The Stanley Cup, and Modano's teammates from the 1999 team that won it, were in attendance. Minnesota was the city that drafted Modano 1st overall in 1988 and was where he played before the franchise transferred to Dallas in 1993.
Down 3-2 in the 3rd period, the Stars refused to let a loss ruin an otherwise amazing evening. The team stormed back and, with two late goals, won the game for Mo by the score of 4-3.
What's the cause of Dallas' turnaround? While it's hard to say, a question that is probably best answered by a fly on the wall in the team's dressing room, "leadership" is a word that keeps coming up over and over again lately. From Nill to Ruff to veteran players on the ice, such as Fiddler, Ray Whitney, Erik Cole, Shawn Horcoff, Sergei Gonchar, all of these guys have fought through these trenches before. They've developed the tools to handle the pressure and the adversity, so they know how to teach and to guide the younger players through it. While Stars teams of recent years have also featured many players with lots of experience, perhaps the organization has finally found just the right blend.
Despite all of their impressive victories this season, the Stars still have more work to be done. Their hold on a playoff spot is precarious, and with 17 games to go this season there is a lot that can happen in that time frame.
However, regardless of what happens between now and then, regardless of whether or not the Stars make the playoffs, the team, and their fans, should hold their heads up high and take pride in what's been accomplished. This Stars group truly is something special, and has been an absolute honor and a joy to watch and to follow this season.
The organization's slogan before this season began was "New Star Rising." Right now, that star is shining very brightly in Dallas.