Being a fan of any sports team can be simultaneously exultant and despairing.
There’s the highest of highs when your favorite team wins the championship: the effort, work, sweat, and tears culminating in being crowned the winner of all for the team, and the countless hours spent analyzing, critiquing, celebrating, and losing sleep as they followed the ride for the fans.
Then there’s the lowest of lows. Those moments when the talent, chemistry, game plan, trades, and drafting don’t come together to win. When the franchise enters a rebuild and the fans are asked to be patient as they work to get back to the pinnacle. (If you’re the Edmonton Oilers, this process can take upwards of 5+ years...talk about patience.) Sometimes there is bankruptcy of the team’s ownership group, and an inability to make moves to improve the product on the ice. Players that were never a good fit to begin with are brought in. Fan favorites past their prime walk away from the franchise and sign with a despised rival.
The embodiment of fandom is anchored by the two extremes. It’s those moments that stick with you, the ones you bring up when discussing your favorite team. It’s not the in-between years or minor blips on the radar that, at the time, may have felt like monumental occasions. It’s the mountains and valleys that you mark your fandom by, especially as the years cumulate.
Today, the Dallas Stars and their fans have the potential to build another mountain in the storyline.
As they come into the American Airlines Center leading the Nashville Predators 3-2 in the best-of-seven first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, one can’t help but remark on how a win tonight can provide incredible delight to the fanbase instead of the recent history of absolute gut punches in playoffs past.
Granted, we’re working with some small sample sizes because the last decade has been marked by just two other post season appearances before this season’s, which is a big gut punch to begin with after the team was a perennial Cup contender in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To add insult to that wound, those two appearances ended in some very brutal ways.
Facing the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2013-2014 season, the Stars had a 4-2 lead with less than three minutes in Game 6 to force the series back to Anaheim for a decisive Game 7. Instead, the team imploded, giving up two goals to see the game tied within two minutes of each other at the end of regulation in the third period. In the overtime period, just 2:47 into the extra time, the Stars gave up the series-ending goal (ironically, it was a goal by Nick Bonino, who now plays for the Predators, setup by Andrew Cogliano, who now plays for the Stars).
I’m not sure I’ve heard the American Airlines Center go from such elation to such abject despair in such a short time frame before than I did in that 30 minutes.
In the 2015-2016 season, the Stars faithful watched the team lose on home ice in Game 5 versus the Minnesota Wild in the first round to make the series closer than it needed to be. After all, the Stars came into their home barn with the ability to close the series out with a 3-1 lead. It seems pretty simple — home ice and home fans offer an emotional edge the road team does not get any benefit from. So to lose at home in a series-clinching scenario felt like a cold bucket of water to the home fans. Luckily, the team went into Minnesota and closed out the series on the road.
Don’t worry. The gut punch came in the second round this time. After watching the team win on the road to tie up their series with the St. Louis Blues, including Kari Lehtonen standing on his head in net to get them there, the infamous Game 7 performance happened. On home ice. Instead of taking the momentum of tying the series and the emotion generated by the unbelievably loud and raucous crowd to open the game through to the win, the team imploded right in front of their fans’ eyes — again.
In fact, you have to go back more than 10 years to find the last time the Stars closed out a playoff series on home ice. It occurred in 2008, when they beat the San Jose Sharks in a quadruple overtime game to advance to the Western Conference Final.
Tonight’s potential series-clinching game was always going to be big. First-year head coach Jim Montgomery knows it is, and knows that his team has work to do to put an end to the inauspicious string of recent series-clinching games on home ice. “I think we keep getting better and we have to keep getting better,” he said after the Stars beat the Predators in Game 5 Saturday night. “The next one is the hardest one because it’s the potential to end someone’s season, so that’s a challenge in front of us now.”
Hopefully, they send the Stars faithful away from American Airlines Center without the gut punch experience this time around. A new mountain in the Stars fandom’s landscape instead of another valley.