It is very late as I write this (2:01 AM, Pacific). I've just finished watching (on tape delay) the Stars win the Central Division and finish the season atop the entire Western Conference. I foolishly spent the evening at a ballpark as previously planned when I could instead have been watching Jason Spezza grab Game 82 by the shoulders and shake it into agreement alongside all of you. (Game 82: "Yes, Mr. Spezza, I understand. Sorry about the earlier confusion.")
Lindy Ruff even admitted that he didn't expect the Stars to win the Central this year. And really, did any of us? (Besides Josh, I mean.) That's no slight on the team at all. Rather, it's the frank admission of how difficult it is to climb the standings in the NHL, and especially in the Central Division. St. Louis and Chicago are the second and third-best teams in the West this year, and Dallas ended up playing better than both of them over an 82-game season. Would you have thought that Oduya, Sharp and Niemi would make that sort of a difference? Would anyone have said that a full season from Klingberg or any part of a season from Faksa or Johns could make this happen?
Maybe you would have. Great job! You are a great Sports Predictor, and I think you should make sure to tell everyone how you knew this would happen, and definitely keep making predictions and letting us know how they turn out. Most of us were unsure of how it all would come together, and most of us would not have believed that another 30+ year-old goalie and Kris Russell would be meaningful factors in a wildly successful regular season.
When you look at the additions, it's odd, because none of them seemed to make a 10th-to-1st difference on their own. Sure, it's nice to get playoff experience and depth, but if you could just pile up veterans and promote your best AHLers and hope for victory, hockey would be easy.
Take the net, for instance, as it was one of the biggest culprits of the 2014-15 disappointment. This year, Niemi and Lehtonen split 50 (50!) wins down the middle as Niemi played 45 games to Kari's 37. Kari finished with an overall save percentage of .906 to Niemi's .905, though if you're looking at 5v5 save percentage, Niemi was far better: .924 to .909. I'd suspect that Niemi gets game one against Minnesota, but the fact that we still aren't positive about that speaks to just how weird the whole situation is. That save percentage of .906 is not generally a "good" number, but for the Stars, it was just fine.
Johnny Oduya has also been a dependable player in the back end of the ice, but it's not like his numbers (traditional or fancy) blow you away. He played 82 games--Goligoski was the only other defender to do so)--and he played them well enough. But rare was the night that you were jumping out of your seat because of Oduya's positioning. His isn't the John Klingberg sort of game, but it looks like the Stars needed it just as much at times, and they got it.
Of course, any hockey maven will tell you that it's rare that one player can make a deciding difference in one game, let alone over the course of a season. Hockey is a team sport that requires depth and consistent contribution across the lineup. The lack of that depth is why Edmonton has been so hopeless despite some deadly talent up front, and the solidification of that depth is what got the Stars where they are today, which is the top of the conference. I'm not sick of typing "top of the conference" yet, and I don't anticipate becoming so.
This game ended up being meaningless in the standings as the Blues' defeat (at the hands of another hat trick) seemed likely from the midpoint on, but it sure doesn't feel meaningless, right? Jason Spezza racked up his second hat trick of the season in a thrilling comeback, and the final goal came with overtime looming. It was a huge moment even if it didn't "matter," but maybe the fact that it did feel so important in spite of its inconsequential nature shows just how important it really was. We all cared about that game because this season has made us greedy, and also because 50 is a nice round number of wins. (Or goals, if you're Ovechkin, but almost none of you is Ovechkin.)
John Klingberg is the sort of player that 20 other GMs pine for, and the Stars will be taking him to the playoffs for the first time in his career. Klingberg turned on Hero Mode a few times tonight, but none moreso than when he sallied forth into the Preds' zone and flipped a blind* saucer pass to Spezza. It was Classic Klingberg, his making moves no one else on the blue line can make while also knowing just precisely when to discard the pill to create a glorious scoring chance.
*Well, not "blind" if you count Klingberg's second sight, which you ought to do.
And this year, 33 of Jason Spezza's shots turned from chances into actualities. Spezza accepted a trade to Dallas (while spurning Nashville, which makes tonight that much sweeter), and he then re-signed, knowing all the while that he wouldn't be getting top-line minutes. It was a sacrifice, if you can call $30 million contracts "sacrifices," but given that ice time is the only tender these athletes trade in while they work, it does make a noble bit of sense in its way. Jason Spezza wanted to be in Dallas even if it meant he probably wouldn't be getting his own statue there someday. He would be the Nieuwendyk figure, or try to be, and that really set the tone of Spezza's tenure with this team in a way that no individual highlight could. He wanted to help the Dallas Stars win games, and tonight, he did exactly that. When the final horn blew (for quite a while, by the way), it seemed like Spezza had done much more.
Two years ago, the Stars handed the mic to their captain to inform the fans that Dallas was Back to Relevance. They would get a shot at glory again, even if it was a small one, and that was sweet relief to a thirsty fanbase. They were Back in the Conversation.
Last year, Jamie Benn was grateful for the miraculous Art Ross Trophy run, but he had little else to offer the fans than his own accomplishment, and that grated on him. Jamie Benn was forced to talk to 19,000 people about his accomplishment, and he invoked his failures at the same time.
This year, this very Saturday, Jamie Benn took the mic and soberly thanked everyone. Then he started preparing for the playoffs.
Banners will be hung for as long as the Stars exist because of what happened on Saturday (and the 81 games before it), but Dallas has officially moved on from the "Getting There" phase. This awkward teenager that got fired from their part-time job at Regal Cinemas last year suddenly started filling out their Selective Service registration. Even though they got some sweet 18th birthday gifts as well, they can't help but understand the implications of this milestone. There is a lot more at stake now.
But as Razor said, tonight was the night for celebration. The sum of 82 games says an extraordinarily great amount about a group of players, and the Stars deserve a deep breath and a cold drink after everything they did to get here.
The game was an odd one, with a depleted Nashville squad and a jittery Dallas team rarely matching each other's effort at a given time. It ended Dallas's way, but posts were hit, and big saves were made. For once, I loved watching the game, but I don't see too much to be gleaned from its contents. The result seems infinitely more important.
There is so much to be happy about, even after the Stars nearly surrendered another (lot of italics tonight) shorthanded goal tonight. For instance:
Curt Fraser and Company's power play went from 8th last year to 5th in the NHL this season, while their penalty kill rocketed up from 20th to 10th.
Goalies are psychologically unique individuals, every last one of them, but Jeff Reese's students Kari and Antti moved the Stars up from 4th-worst in goals-against to 20th overall. It wasn't a monumental change, but for the league's highest scoring team, it might as well have been. Improvement was needed and provided for, and it was accomplished.
Dallas started last season with zero right-handed defensemen. They are now primed to enter the playoffs with three R/L pairings--I think what we saw on the blue line tonight is what we'll see Thursday--and it's hard to find a third pair in there that most teams wouldn't be content to put as their second, at least.
The team is flush with young talent coming into its own, and more talent besides in Cedar Park. Radek Faksa has become the sort of impact player that first round picks are chosen to be. Ales Hemsky is gladly plying his trade on a consistent line, and it's Antoine Roussel of all people who's found a niche on his opposite wing. Jason Spezza reminded everyone that the Stars have deadly scoring talent on multiple lines, and Colton Sceviour just got done piping up about how the Stars' fourth line might actually be sneaky-great as well.
Tyler Seguin will hopefully be ready to go Thursday. Just try not to draw up a terrifying (for the other 15 teams) lineup with him and Janmark in the mix. That's what the Stars are working with. The trade deadline was six weeks ago, but Dallas is finally ready to assemble its truest and best cast of characters, and it's a peach of a lineup if I ever saw one.
It's a fantastic accomplishment, winning your division. There are only four of them to be won every year since the realignment, and the Stars have been asked to win the most difficult one of all. It took them three years to do it, but I have a tough time looking down the line and saying that it will take that many years to do it again. The bar has been raised, going forward.
But we're not going forward until Thursday, so please continue reveling in the glory of a successful season. There is more work to be done, but that's like saying "Monday will be here before you know it" on Friday at 5 o'clock. Enjoy it and brag about all the hard work that's been done. It's been 13 years since the Stars earned this level of bragging rights over the regular season.
Nothing else matters, sure; but this season was also like nothing else Stars fans have experienced in recent memory. And I think that might matter just a little.