Walking back to the car from Honda Center last night felt good. It had nothing to do with the Ducks team picture that was given away as I had walked in the door, and it had almost nothing to do with the coupons our section had won for a free 2-liter bottle of 7-Up/Dr. Pepper Ten (cash value of up to $1.59). It had everything to do with the score.
* * *
April 10, 2008. The Stars came into Anaheim as the 5th seed in the Western Conference. The Ducks were the defending champions, but the Stars had won five of eight against Anaheim during the season. Dallas' core was aging, but no one would know until much later that this was to be the last playoff run for Dallas with any of Turco, Modano, Lehtinen, Zubov, Morrow, Robidas, Hagman, Miettinen, Barnes and even the newly acquired Brad Richards. After too many first-round knockouts by the Avs and a particularly painful loss against the Canucks in 2007, the clock was ticking on the Dallas Stars. They were solidly ensconced in the playoffs despite a lackluster March, but the tent poles holding up the squad that had been more or less familiar for seven or eight years were bound to fall eventually. Would it be 2008?
Game 1 was my first taste of playoff hockey in person. My brother and I arrived at Honda Center early in the evening, and the usually obnoxious vibe (Staples Center is rough, but still not nearly as bad) was amplified beyond what I had ever seen. People talk of the electric feel of playoff hockey, and now is an especially bittersweet time to remember—it is impossible to forget, though. My memories are made up of buzzing and incredible tension everywhere. I wonder if everyone feels like that at the start of a playoff series, just so tense and keyed up that they have to talk a little louder, laugh a little harder, and converse a little more intensely than usual just to keep themselves from screaming and gnashing their teeth out of an overabundance of anticipation. My heart actually jumped a bit when we finally made it onto the concourse well before puck drop and saw a swath of bright orange rally towels draped over every seat in the rink.
If you remember that game, then you also remember that it was over much earlier than anyone would have expected. Four powerplay goals before the second period had ended and a perfect Marty Turco more or less crushed every vestige of hope the crowd had brought with them. It was 4-0 to Dallas after forty minutes, and the third period became a victory lap in the least likely of situations, made all the sweeter after the marathon game 1 Dallas had dropped against Vancouver in Game 1 the year before. The team had discovered how to beat the Ducks during the year, and the formula had proven true in the playoffs. The veterans perked up—you'll remember Modano's capping the series with an empty-netter in game 6—and the team had that "town ain't big enough for the both of us" vibe again that carried them through a series against what should have been, I think, a superior Sharks team. The Red Wings would eventually remind the Stars that there were still truly elite teams even in the league of parity, but that series against the Ducks was everything Stars fans had been conditioned to stop hoping for: Dallas reminding a higher seed of just how good the boys in green could be when everything worked right.
* * *
Last night was the Ducks' final home game of the season, and as such, it was Fan Appreciation night. The video board sang all game long with announcements of jerseys, game-used sticks, gift cards and prizes of all kinds throughout the game. (Aside: During the second intermission, they gave away a car by putting four people in chairs at center ice with buckets in front of them. In the buckets was ice, lots of ice, and in one bucket was a car key. I failed to understand why the contestants were being urged on so fervently to dig through the ice when only one of them had anything to find—why not just take your time and be systematic? If it's there, you'll find it, and if it's not, digging more quickly won't do you any good. Anyway, yeah.) The rink was mostly full with some empty seats on the lower level. There were also a surprisingly decent amount of Stars jerseys scattered throughout the crowd as well, which a lot easier to determine since the switch to victory green, by the way.
Our section won those $1.59 coupons, and it was pretty emblematic of what all the Ducks fans were given by a Getzlaf-less team with little to play for other than the ability to further ensure that they would play Winnipeg (or Los Angeles!) instead of Minnesota in round one. Corey Perry was more or less invisible aside from the occasion when Antoine Roussel interfered with him, and Ryan Kesler was on the roster, I am told. Cam Fowler's name was only mentioned in exasperation from what I could hear—I think he is their fans' Goligoski this year, especially after a healthy scratch a little while ago—and Bruce Boudreau's boys' decisions with the puck became downright laughable by the time the third period rolled around. The Stars dominated everything about the game. (Well, maybe not faceoffs, actually; that's the one thing that stuck out while I was there, but I'm not going to look it up now. Go read Erin's piece on the Stars' faceoff improvements this year instead.) I would call the final two periods a victory lap of sorts, except the Stars don't get one of those this year. Last season's playoff appearance was an earlier-than-expected gift, and this year's absence from a series was an overly brutal reminder of how tough this league (and division) can be.
If last night's game wasn't really a celebration of anything this season, it was a consolation prize, and a pretty excellent one at that. Dallas came into Anaheim exhausted and disappointed, and they took out their frustration on a team preparing to begin a playoff series against the Jets, Kings or Wild. If the Stars with the Pitbull-staffed second line last year were a not unreasonable pick to upset the #1 seeded Ducks, then any of this year's three potential matchups have to be just about terrifying for Anaheim. In light of that trepidation, the Stars reminded the Ducks how good the Western Conference is this year. "Hi folks, remember us? Well, we're not even one of the top 9 teams in the conference this year. Have some fun against our backup goalie and a battered Jamie Benn and 80% Tyler Seguin. I'm sure you'll show everyone that your absurd record in one-goal games this year was really a feature, not a bug." Given the surrounding circumstances, it's worth asking just which team was really celebrating Fan Appreciation Night on Wednesday; I know most Dallas fans can't think of any team they'd rather blow out in a random game than the Ducks.
Patrik Nemeth looked like someone the coach has wanted to scratch lately, for what it's worth. He only played about 11 minutes, and he only took two shifts in the third period. For all the hope he brought in his return to the defense corps, he is still green in the less-cool way. A summer of recovery and potential defensive rearrangements should be the best possible thing for him right now, as much as we would like to see him turn into a stalwart playoff defenseman even for a short time. Even John Klingberg will be well-served by a summer of strengthening and study; when September rolls around, I don't envy the first forechecker that encounters a John Klingberg whose hip surgery is but a faded memory.
Valeri Nichushkin is impressive in person, especially when he's fresh. He had two good chances to put the puck in the net, but I'm less interested in those fruitless efforts than in his overall skating and passing, which seemed very much up to speed—an impressive feat when playing with Jason Spezza. He was in the right position quite a few times, and he really does evoke Jagr with some of his body positioning with the puck. Also, he is huge.
Jamie Benn, you know all about. "Alpha male" is still such an apt way of describing him, and last night was one in which he looked every bit the part. The Stars have two of the top ten forward in the league on their team, maybe even top five. It bears repeating just how good this team can be if they can sort out their back end(s), because scoring at the rate they do in a league as stifling as this one has become is a great, great feat. Even during a performance as dominant as Wednesday's, the defensemen were activating all over the place and beating Ducks to pucks. You can decide if that is a competitive advantage or a latent problem with this team.
I walked out of the building last night feeling buoyant amid the various "you guys suck." or "playoffs!" jabs that were tossed at my silent form inside a North Stars jersey. Both insults are true, relatively speaking. The Stars aren't making the playoffs, and it's because they have, well, sucked too many times this year. The thing is, this isn't a Stars team channeling some of their fading glory into a beautiful last burst of power at the right time. This is a squad chock-full of potential, a young thoroughbred just begging to burst past the competition and hold its tail aloft. Some overeager stumbles set them back enough early in the race to render this late, stunning burst insufficient for their ultimate purposes, but you know what? Sometimes it's just a joy to watch a horse run. Last night was Seabiscuit's message to War Admiral down the home stretch: I am better than you. The Stars will have to wait a while before getting the chance to send that message to the rest of the league, but last night, and frankly, most of the team's play in the second half, gave us a glorious display of just how fast this horse can run.