Look, we get it. It's weird. The regular season is over, and the Dallas Stars are the Best Team in the Western Conference. The other shoe is still dangling, but you're finally accepting that it isn't going to drop in time for a 2015ish bit of sabotage. It's a nice feeling, breathing again, wouldn't you say?
It's great to look back on a season of such fabulous success, and we'll be doing plenty of that once the playoff frenzy abates (which we hope will be months from now). Today, however, we have Problems To Solve.
You surely remember playoff hockey, but chances are your memories are negative, mixed, or blurry with the cataracts of time. Since the OG Lockout, Dallas has made the playoffs four time and won a playoff series in one of those times: 2008. You might remember the exhilaration (and exhalation) when Modano scored the empty-netter to seal the other game six against Anaheim. That's a bit like what we hope these quarterfinals will bring, only with more accompanying haughtiness this time around given recent history with the opponent.
Underdogs will often say (especially before a game 7) that "all the pressure" is on the favorite in those series. It's been far too long since Dallas was a seeded favorite in a playoff series to remember how true that is, but you've probably sensed the anxiety around town whenever someone talks about how Dallas should stomp Minnesota without dirtying their boots. Something about tempting fate and all that bosh, but it makes you uneasy all the same. Things are getting Very Real all of a sudden, and that means worry. Disasters can happen, as we know all too well. It's impossible to stave off stray thoughts of what might go wrong once Thursday arrives.
With that in mind, I have put together a handy guide for fans already going through the early stages of this Playoff Anxiety, which is a verifiable medical condition. I hope it brings you peace as we approach this Most Wonderfully Terrifying Time of the Year.
Stage 1: Overconfidence ("Hey, this almost seems too easy!....wait...")
The Minnesota Wild finished with the fewest points of any playoff team this year, while the Stars won the [nonexistent] Vice President's Trophy with the second-highest total in the NHL. (Hey, if the league can call it the "President's Trophy" when they haven't had a president for ages, I have no compunctions about magicking up new trophies. Trophies for everyone!)
So, you could be forgiven for sauntering into AT&T Plaza Thursday with 12 gallons of confidence in your ten-gallon hat. It feels nice to strut after moping about with hands in pockets for much of the last eight years, so why not take advantage of that? Treat yourself for once.
This stage is actually pretty great, at first. Much like cereal for dinner, you find yourself sitting down with a smile, cheerfully indulging in this wonderful little treat. Being the Favorite is sort of fun, it turns out. You finally get to see other fans cower when your squad's name pops up, and it's nice to be on the other side of that dynamic.
But you know what happens next. Just as things look like they couldn't get any cheerier before Game 1, the voices start whispering. They're indiscernible at first, but you start adding your own doubts to them in an effort to stay grounded, and suddenly you're having spastic visions of the 2012 Canucks and the 2010 Capitals. Disaster can come in so many forms that you start twitching any time someone laughs at how much better Dallas is than Minnesota. By the time the puck drops on Thursday, you've been in your seat dripping with sweat for six hours (is that what the towels are really for?) and clutching a program that's been nervously clutched into damp, wrinkled illegibility while you recite "we have a top-five power play" to yourself. And just like that hour after you ate cereal for dinner, you find yourself cursing whatever drove you to be here in the first place.
Don't worry, though. If you're fortunate, you'll be able to move on to...
Stage 2: Pleading Ignorance ("Anything can happen!")
Denial is the oldest defense mechanism in the book for a reason: it works. Sure, the Stars' fifth-leading scorer (and leading cheekbone-haver) was only one point back of Mikko Koivu (who led Minnesota), but don't tell us that. Sure, the Stars' special teams were really quite good this year (both overall and against the Wild), but we don't want to hear that right now.
This is the playoffs, and we don't want to hear anyone predict anything even a second in advance. The goal isn't scored until the number goes on the board, a game isn't won until the enemy dejectedly leaves the ice, and the series isn't won until Minnesota proudly declares the Moral Victory for Being Successful Hockey Missionaries for the South.
This stage is easily recognizable in a fan's tendency to glare, clench their jaw, and shake their head the minute a fellow Stars fan smiles. "DON'T JINX IT, YOU IDIOT." They will then resume running laps around the Hangar while screaming "Nothing Else Matters" at the top of their lungs.
Stage 3: Overreacting to Overconfidence ("They could easily crush us, you morons.")
If fans in Stage 2 find their Stage 1 brethren discomfiting, folks in Stage 3 are about ready to throw first-stagers in prison. This is the natural progression from sober realism about the crap shoot that a playoff series can be to outright cynicism about your team's ability to put on their hockey pants.
Note that these fans aren't quite ready to say that their team will lose; they simply despise anyone who thinks the Stars have at least 51% chance of winning. They want it made abundantly clear that overconfidence leads to cockiness, cockiness leads to ignoring optimism, and ignorant optimism leads to
the dark side immensely greater pain, should the unthinkable happen.
These fans haven't quite boarded the Train of Despondence yet, but they certainly want no part of the folks they walked past who were dancing on the railroad tracks. We remember 2006 all too well, and we will make sure to remind every single happy fan we see about it as well.
"Joy and love bring only pain, so flee from attachment (to your team)." Basically, Stage 3 fans are the lame old-school Jedi from the prequels. Who would ever want to hang out with them?
Stage 4: Pessimistic Rationalizing ("Well, we were never going to win anyway, so losing won't be so bad.")
These fans have definitely boarded the Train of Despondence, but their fervor for inviting you along has died along with any hint of hope. They have fled all the way to the other side of the Stage 1 equation in repressed hopes that they will experience the blissful surprise of victory.
Yes, that's right: these fans are hoping for victory, though you could be excused for misunderstanding their glum nods, wry smiles and acidic laughter whenever your team allows a shorthanded goal (like that would ever happen, ha ha).
This is less of a defense mechanism than it is an outright choice to experience the game in the way that seems least risky to them. After all, children have been born and given their first used Corolla since the Stars last hung a Stanley Cup banner; why expose precious hopes to the (they think) certitude of destruction? Nay, they say! Far better to expect the worst and guard our own emotions while simultaneously piling up a good heap o' told-ya-so with which to bludgeon other crestfallen fans when everything inevitably falls apart.
Fans in Stage 1 walk out of a 2014 Game 6 in stunned silence, mouthing "I can't believe it" with a glazed expression. Fans in Stage 4 just give a dark chuckle and talk (perhaps a bit too loudly) about how the Stars didn't even really deserve to be in the playoffs in the first place, so what were all of these folks expecting? Fans in Stage 4 often wind up "falling down the stairs" when they walk alongside Stage 1 fans for too long after a bitter defeat.
Stage 5: Actually Dying (Over and over and over again with each scoring chance, shot, zone entry, turnover, or faceoff of any kind anywhere on the ice.)
In case the description of Stage 5 wasn't warning enough, let me be clear: This will kill you. The whole point of Stages 1-4 is to keep you alive in some way by aligning your expectations with reality or a preferred-but-safe version of it. Stage 5 is a choice to plunge headlong into the whirlpool of mortality, trusting in a 1-in-16 (if that) chance of being spit out on dry land, knowing all the while that even the luckiest fans undergo horrific trauma before reaching the shore.
You don't usually plan to wind up in Stage 5. Either you stumble into it as a new fan without knowing any better, or playoff overtime grabs and drags you there from whichever other stage in which you had been ensconced. It is a dark, painful place, and it takes years off your life. Stage 5 is a prison camp without the breaks for meal time.
And not unlike such camps, Stage 5 survivors carry with them an immense burden and unfathomable stories. It is this unabashed investment in a game, this utter disregard for one's sanity and happiness, that offer scars and stories the likes of which those yet unfamiliar with S-5 can only imagine.
2014 came with the lowest of expectations. Dallas was the lowest seed, the underdog, and the team thrilled about getting a participation trophy for the first time in six years (trophies for everyone). They were down 2-0 in the series within the blink of an eye. They were pushed to the brink of elimination in a horrendous game 5 that should have quashed any remaining fragile hope. And even in Game 6, after the lead evaporated and overtime loomed, you still found yourself envisioning a glorious sudden-death goal that would bring things to a (Stage 3-esque) Anything-Can-Happen Game 7.
I guess I'm saying: Beware. Stage 5 is deadly poisonous, and it can sneak up on even the most unsuspecting fans. Unless you jump to it right off the bat, of course; but that would be foolhardy Or, dare I say...fanatical.