There was a moment during the third period of Sunday night's game against the Anaheim Ducks when it seemed that nearly everything had aligned perfectly for the storybook ending we could only have hoped for. Leading 4-2 and threatening to send the series back to Anaheim for an improbable Game 7, Alex Goligoski sent the hated Corey Perry skates over elbows with a perfect hip check along the boards -- a hit which made all 19,363 last night at the AAC jump to their feet and explode like a game-winning goal had just been scored.
It was an amazing feeling and all too soon it was gone, lost in the haze of a frustrating end to the game and the season. It was a feeling that left everyone who had fallen in love with this team this season incredibly proud yet disappointed -- while hungry and excited for what's to come.
At the heart of that hunger was coach Lindy Ruff, who faced the media after the loss with his head held high and offering nothing but praise for the team he's coached this season and how far they've come since October. Ruff has known all season which buttons to push and when and he's remarked over the past few weeks how hard he's pushed his team this season and how, in a do-or-die game on home ice, all he wanted was for his players to empty the tank and leave everything out on the ice.
No matter how the game might have ended, that's exactly what he got from his players. When asked about what he had to say to his team before overtime, Ruff took the moment to reflect on the game as a whole and how the Stars gave their all when it mattered most.
"I told what I've been telling them all year," said Ruff. "Refocus, be ready to play. I thought we came out good to start. Just lost coverage, obviously, on the overtime goal. The room was upbeat, I told them to pick their heads up and just be ready to go."
"It's a cruel lesson," he then continued, talked about the overtime loss and how the game ended. "But it gives us a platform to build off of. There was a lot of good in the game. From utter dominance at times, to missing on some breakaways and that opening play we set up for a breakaway to set the tone for the game. The battle and the compete for this team has been unbelievable. I'm proud of the way they played. They played hard, they played really hard.
"They had them frustrated, they just got goaded into a little bit of a penalty there at the end and it's tough. That's a learning experience, that's a young mistake. That's all it is."
The mistake that Ruff mentioned was likely referring to the matching roughing minor taken by Alex Chiasson in the final minutes of the game that created a 5-on-4 opportunity for the Ducks, who used that to gain momentum and tie the game. Chiasson appeared ready to drop the gloves when challenged and instead found himself an unwilling partner and instead of matching fighting major it was matching minors, and the entire complexion of those final minutes were changed.
Yet Ruff would refuse to call out any players in the loss and instead ruminated on the growth of the Stars just over the course of a six-game postseason series.
"You can't sit here and look for blame in a game like that," said Ruff. "There was too much good in the game. We have to learn from a couple of incidents that happened on the ice, just like we have to learn from the incidents in Game 5. Those players turned it around and were very good players again for us tonight. But we have a young team, we have young playoff experience and we put ourselves in situation we didn't have to be in."
Perhaps some would want Ruff to rant about the miscues that continued to plague certain players throughout the season and into the series against the Ducks, but this year has been about growth and learning and figuring out just what sort of team the Dallas Stars will be under Ruff and general manager Jim Nill. Ruff has taken a hard stance at times this season when needed with his team but after a series like that, pushing the No. 1 seed to the limit and making the NHL take notice of how far the Stars have come, perhaps it's fitting that the coach would opt for praise and support instead.
What is frustrating for fans and it's frustrating for the coaches and players as well is that the Stars were not grossly outplayed and the difference between the two teams in the series was one team was opportunistic and took advantage of their chances and the other struggled with finishing the chances they created. That's where the ultimate dissatisfaction from this series will come from, no matter how competitive the Stars were.
"I would say it's tough to lose a series considering how well we played this series," said Ruff. "We had just dominant periods where one thing that was missing. You can go back to Game 2 where we could have been that team to tie it up, we had some great chances and we just missed on those opportunities. We talked this morning about some of our finish.
"We had it right there up 4-2 with two minutes remaining, but it's a cruel way...sometimes hockey is cruel. It was cruel, really cruel, to a group of guys that worked really hard tonight. There wasn't one guy that was a passenger."
Finally, as he has done countless times the past few months, the Dallas Stars coach had nothing but praise for the incredible atmosphere that has been created on home ice at the American Airlines Center. For those in attendance last night the experience was nothing short of magical, no matter how the game might have ended, and Ruff acknowledged as much afterward.
"Our fans can be proud of those guys that stepped foot on the ice," said the Stars coach. "I was awfully proud of our fans, I don't think half of them sat down the whole game. This building was something that helped push these guys, you could just feel the energy.
"That's something special right there."