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Afterwords: Good-Bye, Minnesota. Hello, Nashville

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The Stars finished the season with their second-highest point total of the Jim Nill era

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In a couple of years they have built

A home sweet home

With a couple of kids running in the yard

***

After getting plowed in Chicago on Friday, Dallas fired back at the Central in a big way tonight. Which was appropriate, considering that this season has been a bit like triaging a battle wound.

The last three seasons have been hard. Even this season was enormously trying, with the Stars hanging around the playoff bubble for much of the year, scoring their lowest goal total (210) of any full season since the 2004 lockout. This wasn’t an entertaining team, intrinsically.

But this season healed a lot of wounds, and sometimes you have to tie a bandage so tightly that it restricts regular movement. And when you have the Ace bandages in net that Dallas does, well, it’s tough to complain too much if the infection’s clearing up. Especially against a team that cut Dallas deeply back in 2011, and came within inches of doing the same again in 2016 during a first-round series that never should have been as close as it was. Beating Minnesota is always just a little better than average. Beating them on Fan Appreciation Night with the playoffs on deck is gravy.

Carolina this year broke the longest existing playoff drought in the league. You can watch videos of fans tearing up in the stands, and it brings to mind the memories we talked about earlier this week of 2014. This wasn’t that, but it was a different sort of relief just the same. The Stars have been broken ever since the devastating game seven loss to St. Louis in 2016, and now, at last, there’s another chance to put all of our emotions out there again.

But as so many games have been this year, this game was a microcosm of the season. The first 40 minutes were frustrating, highlighted by a particularly cruel moment where it looked like Seriously Greg Pateryn was going to give Minnesota the lead. But this year is not last year, or any other. Dallas this year has scored the fewest goals of any full season since the 2004 lockout, but they have also allowed the second-fewest in that same span. The Stars do not necessarily hope to control games, but they do contain them. And when you have a Tyler Seguin and healthy Ben Bishop in your arsenal, containment is a practicable approach through 40 minutes. It’s almost too perfect that Valeri Nichushkin ended the season with zero goals scored while also being a productive and disciplined player; the Stars can use players like that, on this team. The goals will, eventually, come. And, after a tumultuous season, there is now just one goal for Dallas to concern themselves with: the next one, against Nashville.

***

Dallas dominated this game in terms of puck possession, just as they did that Minnesota series. But the Stars also kept their wits about them long enough to outlast a tired team, as Jim Montgomery continued to regulate minutes throughout the lineup as he did in Chicago.

But for Dallas, domination is a different animal, as you surely know by now. The Stars’ temporary impotence was presaged by competing 2-on-1s early, with Fedun just managing to slide to break such a chance up in front of Bishop, right before Pitlick was stopped at the other end after a nice move by Hintz to create a chance for Dallas. And so it went. Radek Faksa later had a breakaway on which he was stopped, but even in the earlier portions, Bishop cleaned up some random scrambles, Blake Comeau had some great chances, and Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson also had some good looks that went no farther than that. And, through 40 minutes, it was all still disturbingly precarious. Nashville was losing to Chicago for a while, and the possibility of facing a white-hot St. Louis team or even getting bounced into the Pacific bracket with a loss and a Colorado win seemed very, very real.

That checking line of Comeau, Faksa and Cogliano was particularly fascinating. Faksa’s relative scoring prowess aside—his 15 goals were 4th on the team—this is a far cry from the Faksa-Hemsky-Roussel line that scored the Stars’ first goal of the 2016 playoffs. This line created chance after chance against a largely listless Wild squad, but Alex Stalock, yes that one, was able to stop them with what would be disturbing ease, were we not by now well-acquainted with the Stars’ goal-scoring abilities, or lack thereof. This line is not for finishing, but for forcing the other side to go three-and-out.

Last season’s lineup decisions became frustrating as the season wore on, largely because there seemed to be no discernible correlation to the players’ performance and the minutes with which they would be entrusted. Hitch seemed to have chosen His Guys from an early point in the season, and the torpedoes would be continually damned, even as Ben Bishop took one too many of them. The Stars’ scoring issues grew worse right around the time the goaltending caved in, and you know the rest. It was maddening to see a team double down on players like Martin Hanzal, Greg Pateryn and Marc Methot, only to find themselves eliminated with the same 92 points that they took to the golf course after the raucous year that was 2014-2015.

This season was about wounds, old and new. It still baffles me why a steward of the Dallas Stars would choose to say the horrible things that Jim Lites said about Seguin and Benn. I will never see that as anything but foolhardy, impatient, and irresponsible. But the wonderful thing is that the same players buried by those words have now earned the Stars a life beyond them. As Montgomery said about a defensive lapse early this year that didn’t end up going in the net, those words become something of a footnote to this season, now. The playoffs are what we live and die for, and they are back.

Only one or two questions really remain for the Stars’ lineup against Nashville aside from any decisions predicated on the health of Zuccarello or Bishop. The Stars we have come to know this season are largely ready to go. Montgomery was adamant this morning that Ben Lovejoy was scratched for rest, not because he thought it was the best thing for the team’s hopes of winning. Jamie Oleksiak is the presumptive seventh defenseman in the playoffs, which is still as odd as it was the day the trade went down to bring him back.

The only real question, then, is who would come out of the lineup for Mats Zuccarello. Personally, I think it comes down to Jason Spezza or Justin Dowling, two players that I think are perfectly capable of helping the Stars in the playoffs. In a way, this is a luxury, as the team’s forward depth has been re-established to the point where we aren’t talking about Brett Ritchie playing over Jason Spezza, or Joel L’Esperance getting a crack at the top six. They don’t need to be played that way, because the Stars have some decent options.

Personally, I would love to see a lineup with Spezza and Radulov playing a team that has plenty of reasons to dislike them. Vendettas are fun, and I still remember Jason Spezza’s playoff performance in 2016: 13 points in 13 games. No, this is not that Spezza, but if we are to believe that Lovejoy and Polák’s veteranicity is an asset particularly valuable in the postseason, then why not see if Spezza’s game gets raised a tick or two? Maybe the nets he’s been missing recently get tested when the stakes are higher. But here we are, rambling about Spezza again. I certainly have my weaknesses, and the Stars have certainly had theirs. But this season, they rose above them.

***

I don’t know why they’ve been playing that Beatles song in the locker room after wins this year, and the players certainly aren’t telling. But if I were to propound a theory, it would be something like this: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is one of the Beatles’ least-beloved songs. It’s repetitive, the melody is almost maddeningly simple, and the chorus is punctuated with an almost throwaway, carefree line, “Life goes on.” The song talks about a couple who get married, have kids, build a home, but continue with their respective careers. It is, quite simply, about getting things done without stressing too much. The Stars, this year, turned themselves into a team that protects the slot with ferocity, even as they allow quite a few shots from less dangerous places. It’s a strategy that asks a lot of the goaltenders (and the skaters), but one that can work if your skilled players can create goals out of nothing. In short, the Stars can win games in which everyone does their jobs with diligence and...relentlessness. And now we’ve reached the point where I’m clearly overanalyzing this, because probably someone just sang the song as a joke one off-day at a karaoke bar when everyone was three drinks deep, and it stuck. Sports traditions tend to start like that.

In the end, Montgomery’s Stars are not that different from Hitch’s. They scored about 20 fewer goes but allowed about 20 fewer, too. This wasn’t night and day, but in a crowded Central Division, the Stars beat enough of the other bubble teams and won enough road games to earn the first wild card spot. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating, considering how badly things have gone in the past two years. Bigger things await, we hope, but there’s no sense looking a gift horsesh—er, gift horse in the mouth.

I am really excited about the playoffs. The Stars could lose four games in a row, of course. They’ve done it this season, twice. And better teams than these Stars have gotten trounced against teams that looked vulnerable. Just ask the 2005-06 Stars, the second seed in the West, who got rolled 4-1 by Colorado...who would themselves be swept by Anaheim in the Western Semifinals. Dallas was a good team that year, and they probably deserved a better fate, but things can happen. Sometimes they do.

This year, it’s hard not to get excited about the Stars being that sort of seventh son. They went 2-1-2 against Nashville, and I can’t shake the memory of November 10th, when the Preds eked out a comeback overtime win against a Dallas team with eight players that I wouldn’t expect to see in the starting lineup in game one. Nashville can beat them, but they aren’t nearly as troubling to the Stars as Tampa or even Chicago have been, at times. This Stars team is no less confounding than they were when we were writing lots of concerning diatribes about them in the throes of their stumblings, but I’ve gotten on board with a whole host of different Stars playoff teams in my life, and I’m not about to stop now just because this one is as diametrically opposed to the last playoff iteration as a squad containing 11 of the same players on its roster could be.

Minnesota is undergoing a giant reset as an organization, starting right now. Their season is over. The Stars’ season, long as it’s been already, also feels like it’s just beginning. Life goes on.

***

Do you remember the Stars’ musical theme during their last playoff season? Surely you haven’t forgotten already.

I loved the Jason Spezza-driven Shania anthem of 2016. That team was so much fun, and writing about it was an absolute joy. It was the first year I covered (almost) every game with the corny column label that persists today, and there will never be another seasonlike it. But even if these Stars have gone back on almost everything that made that season so fun to watch, I’m still prepared to get on board with something else. No matter how much they change, we’re still talking about Stars games, here. Getting to talk about an 83rd Stars game is something I’ve dearly missed for three years. It’s nice to be back.