I know some might say that Game 6 in 2015 felt worse; or perhaps you'd say the penalty-polluted Game 7 in Vancouver nine(!) years ago is the one that really rankles to this day. They were two different games for two different Dallas teams, and this year was a similarly unique team and situation, but with a sadly familiar result: Season over.
Just to get it out of the way: of course Cody Eakin was given a free tonsillectomy without a penalty call. Of course Steve Ott hit Hemsky up high along the boards, then drew a cotton-soft call on Radek Faksa away from the puck. Those things happened, but in the end, this was Game 6 with the script flipped. Three goals early by the visitors, and Dallas's torrent of Score Effect Offense managed only a single meaningless goal while the Blues were able to counterattack a couple of times (so I guess it's not exactly like Game 6).
The worst part of all this is that the Stars lost in exactly the sort of way armchair pundits around the world would have predicted. Their defense wasn't deep enough (all six goals were scored with the bottom four defensemen on the ice); the goaltending was bad (see goals 2-4); and the Blues were able to shut down the Stars' league-best offense with boring, safe hockey and an effective penalty kill. It doesn't exactly validate the Stars method of hockey, does it?
Dallas had 87 shot attempts and 18 high-danger scoring chances. They managed only a single goal on Brian Elliott, and even that came off a lucky deflection right to Patrick Eaves. Brian Elliott had some marvelous saves, the Stars missed some nets (again), and everything that could have gone right for the Blues pretty much did.
But as much as you might be tempted to harp on the bad breaks for Dallas (whether in striped uniforms or otherwise), you can't ask for much more of a gift than the successful challenge on the first Yikes goal on Lehtonen. Even though things were precariously disastrous already, the Stars were given a free pass thanks to a lazy Tarasenko zone entry, and they promptly proceeded to give up another bad goal shortly thereafter. The third goal from distance before the period ended was just icing on the barf cake, as it turned out. The Stars would never get to two goals despite playing as wide-open and desperate a hockey game as they could muster.
I can't possibly analyze and process this entire season after enduring this sort of trauma, and neither should we feel obligated to do so. The facts are plain, and they are confusing. Dallas clearly has embraced a system that does no favors to its goaltenders, but Dallas also didn't get all that many favors from its goalies, either. I say that with Game 6 freshly implanted in my mind, too.
All the talk coming into the game was about who could handle the pressure, and if you want to be critical, Nichushkin and Janmark couldn't convert on some of the best chances Dallas would get. They weren't the only ones--I think Sceviour also had a great chance, and of course Sharp and Faksa had glorious shots from the slot that couldn't beat Elliott--but when Robby Fabbri is scoring a power play goal at the other end, Dallas's inability to capitalize can't be ignored. Again, that's not to blame the game on the kids so much as to point out yet another thing St. Louis got that Dallas didn't: timely scoring and timely saves.
Coming this far as a fan of the Stars, you endured plenty of scoffing at their high-octane system. Still, they won the West through 82 games, and so you had a ready retort for anyone skeptical of their two-goalie setup or their small blue line. "It's worked for this long!" Well, it did work, and just about only for that long. Now, we all get the joy of enduring an entire offseason of incomplete criticism about how the Stars are hamstrung by bad goaltending and gee, someone should do something about that.
There's so much more there, though. First, Braden Holtby was just ousted by Pittsburgh and Matt Murray, who I think also filled my prescription at CVS last month. No one in their right mind would start tearing apart Washington's team (although they have their weaknesses), and likewise, Dallas is stronger than the incessant cries of inevitable failure would lead you to believe.
You can't ignore just how bad the penalty kill was this series. They gave one up right off the bat tonight--how different is this game if the Stars get through that one?--and they've been doing it pretty well all series long. Six goals allowed to the Blues in 30ish minutes of PP time is a rather putrid conversion rate (6/15, or 40%). Dallas scored two PPG themselves in just about the same amount of minutes for roughly a 15% success rate. In other words, the Blues scored four more power play goals in this series than Dallas despite the same amount of time, and the Blues won the series by one game. Those are small, volatile numbers, but the possession stats back up just how much better the Blues' power play (and penalty kill) were in seven games, and that's concerning. The Stars were plenty successful in the season, and they showed up marginally well against Minnesota, but St. Louis shut them down when they needed to. That was as much a difference as anything in this series, for my money.
Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi are going to draw the flak here, though. Kari will draw most of it since he gave up the three goals, although that's a bit unfair since the only reason he ended up as the 1A in the postseason is because of how miserable Antti Niemi was when he was tried. Yes, we can blame Kari for not magically becoming better than he's been in his last two seasons, but Niemi's faltering when the Stars tried to go to him is an equally big issue. I don't see that as any sort of indictment of the 1A/1B setup at all, for the record. St. Louis would go to Jake Allen in a heartbeat if Elliott stopped playing out of his gourd, but obviously that only happened for one period so far in this series, and he reverted to form in Game 7.
This loss hurts for players like Vernon Fiddler, whose future with the team is murky at best. It hurts for Travis Moen, who had found a way to contribute in small minutes for a few games despite being written off by a lot of us. It must really sting for a player like Alex Goligoski (the Kari of defense), who was unfairly asked to lead his division for over half a decade despite having very suspect comrades on the blue line until John Klingberg's arrival. These are players that may never end up going all the way with the team they've given so many good years to, and that's a hard reality to accept.
Don't get me wrong--none of us were proclaiming the Stars easy Cup favorites from day one, so there is a sense in which this season was a really great one, and this outcome was even a bit more than expected, all things considered. Taking the second best team in the West to seven games (which happened in the second round, because we need to preserve that Nashville/San Jose divisional rivalry) is an accomplishment, even if it doesn't feel like much more than a missed opportunity right now.
How this season will be remembered is still to be determined, though. If the Stars build on it and make the right adjustments for the future, the best-case scenario is the 1997-98 season, which ended with an injured scorer and anger at what could have been. It also ended up presaging the Stars' best season in franchise history, but it's safe to say there are still a few obstacles (like four UFA defensemen) to sort through before we can even begin discussing that sort of parallel.
The pain that this sort of loss brings is the worst kind, even if it's not the most shocking, lead-coughed-up sort. Once it became clear that Dallas was neither going to get bounces early or force the issue by scoring themselves, you could hear all the smug critics lining up to have their doubts about this strange, "enjoyable" Stars team vindicated. "See? See? We told you this style is too risky." Or, of course, they'll just continue blaming goaltending (and not without cause, certainly), which is must easier than parsing the collective play and strategy of two dozen individuals.
You want to say that you don't care what anyone thinks because you love this team, and you'll show them, you'll show them all. The Stars are so good that they can be egregiously flawed in points and still win the Central Division; it would be asinine to throw that all away because of one or two games in the postseason against the Blues, right? Right?
Whether its goaltending or defense or even special teams coaching, personnel is always the easiest fix. "We just need to get better talent for the issues to sort themselves out." It's not untrue, but it's also not easy to do with the constraints of multi-year goalie contracts (yes, two of them) and the salary cap. Jim Nill has Real Problems to Solve, and perhaps the only consolation in this whole mess is that he still has a first-round pick with which to do so.
There were moments in this game where things could have turned, or where the Stars could have at least stemmed the tide, but it was not to be. You yourself felt it as clearly as the players must have early in the second, when some great pressure and extended zone time created no goals, and the Blues promptly waltzed back up ice and beat Antti Niemi like a rented goalie, which he most definitely is not. Reminder: Antti Niemi was better than Kari Lehtonen over the course of the regular season. Niemi took a turn in the second half, but he was a huge reason for the Stars' points pileup bonanza in the first half of the year, and that's worth remembering before you start talking about the ugly nature of what constitutes a buyout these days. (Hint: it's a lot of cash for a small amount of cap relief.)
Personally, I'd just love to try that series again with Tyler Seguin. We'll find out just what on earth happened to him against Minnesota soon, but for now, the Stars have only the realization that they just went 1-for-4 on home ice in a playoff series, capping it with a stinker that possibly did much more to blunt burgeoning Dallas hockey fandom than an overtime loss could have.
But of course, said fandom is obviously much more widespread now, thanks in no small part to this very season. This wonderful season that brought us three 30-goal scorers, 3-on-3 overtime magic (well, at first), and a playoff overtime victory, finally. Our hearts may be broken right now, but down there in the shards of disappointment, I can find a small "thank you" to offer this team. They weren't perfect, and they reminded us of that a little too clearly on Wednesday. But they got us here, and it was the best ride we've had in almost a decade. If at least some fans were okay with cheering them off the ice last night in person, then I don't see how I couldn't, with a bit of effort, do the same from my keyboard.
It's been fun, folks.