Somewhere, out in the multiverse, is a version of the Dallas Stars that did just a little bit more. That group managed to hold on to a season-opening win against the Chicago Blackhawks. They put a few pucks past Ondrej Pavelec, and more quickly identified a backup goaltender capable of gifting Kari Lehtonen the occasional stress-free night off. All in all, a pretty good group, not much unlike our own, but just enough to make a difference in a tight Western Conference.
As is frequently the case, fate rewarded that group of Stars' pluck. In a first round matchup, the youthful bunch proved more than a match for a badly fading Vancouver Canucks squad. Next, they played dream smasher against the undersized Calgary Flames. In the Western Conference Final, that group of Stars faced a version of the Blackhawks that couldn't quite get Patrick Kane healthy, never settled into any sort of goaltending rhythm, and lacked the depth to deal with both Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin's lines.
And so, in that same alternative universe, the Dallas Stars entered the Stanley Cup Final perhaps a few years ahead of schedule. Driven primarily by an offense bulked up by Valeri Nichushkin's late-season return, the underdog Stars stood as a fierce challenge for the Eastern Conference darling Tampa Bay Lightning.
First Period: TB 2 / Dal 1
The first stanza saw Tampa Bay roar out of the gate. Before the fans could even settle into their seats a quick turnover put the visiting team down 1-0. Former Star Brenden Morrow did the damage by bulling his way to the front of the Dallas net and capitalizing on a poorly controlled rebound. The situation for Dallas went quickly from bad to worse. Over-eager puck pursuit in the defensive zone left Alex Killorn alone for another tap-in tally. Two breakdowns, two goals, and a combined distance for both shots of roughly four feet. Thankfully, the Bolts were similarly disinclined towards defense. The Stars were able to force a late period powerplay and then Klingberg-to-Benn-to-Seguin their way within a goal.
Second Period TB 2 / Dal 1
Things tightened up noticeably in the second period. Goaltender Ben Bishop, in particular, began to assert himself and used his puck-handling ability to diffuse Dallas' aggressive forecheck. The Pitbulls pushed, but found it difficult to dislodge the meaty Tampa Bay defense. Stars highlights included a pair of powerplays, but the magic of the first period was replaced by tentative zone entries and passed up shots. On the plus side, the Stars D was able to counteract the speed of Tampa's Triplet Line through quick passing, and more importantly, avoid further egregious turnovers. The period would end scoreless, with both teams struggling to obtain anything approaching offensive cohesion.
Third Period TB 3 / Dal 4 - Final Score
The grinding physicality so prevalent in the first two periods was nowhere to be found at the start of the game's final regulation period. In its place, the game became a track meet of exactly the sort Dallas enjoyed during the regular season. Both sides would trade chances for much of the first half of the period, but both also received the saves they needed to keep the scoreline static. The game would teeter into its final ten minutes before one team finally broke. Luckily, on this night, that team was Tampa Bay. Dallas tied the game on an excellent individual effort from Valeri Nichushkin, then pushed ahead through Antoine Roussel. Both goals came off the rush, with Tampa Bay's defense chasing, and Bishop struggling into position to try and make a save. Trevor Daley would put a fourth goal into an empty net before an ill-timed rush gifted the Bolts a last minute consolation prize.
The win was well short of a defensive masterpiece, but also never quite hit the offensive high many expected. Both teams did trade chances and try to push the play, but only enjoyed limited success. Unexpected composure limited opportunities with the extra man, as did (the Stars' first goal aside) both teams' combined inability to win the special teams battle. Heading into game 2, Tampa Bay will look at two strong periods. The Stars, meanwhile, will try to spin a frenetic close into a stronger 60 minute effort.