In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, is there really any such thing as “playing with house money”?
Fandom, by very definition, is being fanatical about the team you’ve chosen to follow. Throughout the regular season, and especially prior to Christmas, Dallas Stars fans would have set the goal for success of this season at just making the playoffs. Do that, and everything else beyond it is gravy.
Then the team was second best in the Western Conference following their CBA-mandated 5-day break and the All-Star break that followed it. All of a sudden, the goal became not just making the playoffs, but winning a round. Do that, and everything else beyond it is playing with house money.
Now, on the verge of Game 7 in their series against the St. Louis Blues, Stars fans have heard the siren’s call of the Western Conference Final. There is no more “playing with house money”; there is only one acceptable outcome, a win tonight and an appearance in the third round. Do that, and everything else beyond it is icing on the cake.
Funny how that goal post — what is defined as a “success” for the franchise this season — continues to move.
But most are approaching tonight with weariness. After all, we’ve watched this movie before. Not just a similar picture with different actors — it was this very opponent, this very Game 7, just three springs ago. And the fans took a punch to the proverbial gut when the Stars went out and lost in demoralizing fashion, a 6-1 flop after a spectacular Game 6 to force the series-deciding game. On home ice, in front of their faithful fans, the Stars watched goaltending and team defense implode.
So why should today be any different? Sports only exist to bring you to the precipice of sweet winds to fly on, only to drop you like a stone and give you a rough tumble back down the tree-covered mountainside, making sure you hit every rock and tree branch along the way.
There’s no guarantee it won’t turn out just like that. One fanbase will find exultation and one will find devastation. It’s a 50/50 proposition right now as to which Stars fans will experience.
But there is reason for hope in the face of Game 7 that recent history will not repeat itself.
I’ve never seen a Stars team this loose as this iteration of the Dallas Stars throughout the playoffs. They’re all having fun — players, coaches, staff. The fact that they had to battle through the first half of the season, come together to buy-in on a system that would allow them to be successful, and executed it well to get into the playoffs to begin with has instilled a quiet confidence that as long as they play their way, they’re going to win.
There’s no question marks on the goaltending or the defense of the team. Their system works to make those two functions look pretty good. At times they still look like the team that struggled to score all season long, but now it’s more a byproduct of good defense on the other side than their own ineptitude. The addition of Mats Zuccarello has added a level of creativity that seemed to unlock the forwards on the team. They are getting their high danger chances, they’re converting on them.
In other words, they have all the pieces there to win the game tonight.
It helps that they’ve also kind of owned the Blues on their home ice this season. They’re now 4-2 at Enterprise Center, including two wins in this playoff series already. Ben Bishop is 2-0 in Game 7s in his career, and hasn’t allowed a single goal against while recording two assists of his own in those contests. There’s clutch goaltending to hang your hat on. Dallas is 33-for-35 on the penalty kill. There’s some defense to hang your hat on. In 12 playoff games, the team has scored 39 goals, good for 3.25 a game. There’s offense to hang your hat on — especially when you consider that they scored at nearly a full goal less than that throughout the regular season.
During Game 4, Zuccarello said something to head coach Jim Montgomery that I’d like to call on for today. “We’re having fun. Relax.” To which Montgomery responded, “He has such a pleasant smile. I just said, ‘You’re right.’”
We’re having fun here today, regardless of how the series turns out. After all, we’re just playing with house money, aren’t we?