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Afterwords: A Cruel End to an Audacious Dream

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It was fun while it lasted, but it never seems to last long enough

Dallas Stars v St Louis Blues - Game Seven Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

And we lay thinking ‘bout what lay ahead

And wondering if the sun would rise

For it seems that these are darker days

Than any others that we’ve seen

Oh, how we wished that we weren’t wide awake

And this was all some kind of dream

***

We’ve talked before about how the 2014-15 season (“All the Goals, All the Times”) and the 2017-18 year (“Check for Chances”) both ended with 92 points and no playoff berth. Call it irony or call it fate; both seasons left fans with nothing by way of the playoffs.If you sign up for Dallas Stars Hockey in the 21st century, you are signing up for both edges of the knife, even if they aren’t delivered concurrently. This is the most searing part of that fandom, but it’s also inescapably real. The buzzword in the dressing room after the game was “empty,” and yeah, that’s about right.

The Stars’ last trip to the playoffs three years ago paralleled this one in some weird ways you wouldn’t expect. They played 13 postseason games: six in the first round, and the full seven in the second. And at the end of all things three years ago, we were left bemoaning how great the Stars could have been, if only they had been blessed with a high-quality goaltender.

Well, welcome to 2019, my friend. For it is in this year that the Stars got to witness a game seven once again! Against the same team! And with not only a good goalie, but perhaps the best goalie in the league! That’s about as close to a magic lamp wish as you ever get in sports, even if the genie took three years to come out of the bottle. After six games of varying quality, a tight series came down to the rubber match, and Ben Bishop was healthy. You really couldn’t have asked for more, going in. The Stars had a top six better than anything they had in the last three years, and they were one shot away from knocking out the St. Louis Blues. That’s what sports is for, moments like that. Waiting for heroes.

And yet. Three years or no, the Stars once again scored one goal and lost. Different teams—worlds apart, really—but the result is the same. Given a chance to win one game and move on to a really special stage, the Stars just couldn’t get it done.

The big difference wasn’t in the result, but in the methodology, if you care about how your team lost a game at all. Maybe that matters, or will matter; Tuesday night, it’s hard to feel as though it really does. Dallas was close. Sure. They played into the fifth period, and that’s special territory. We know this season turned into a gift after things looked off-track around the new year, and we won’t forget that. But we also won’t forget the hateful moment when Patrick Maroon scored another game-winning dagger. Not ever.

Sometimes you just get tired of losing big games, and it’s hard to care about whether you lost them because you had the opposite of Ben Bishop in net, or because Ben Bishop in net was the only thing you really did have. Sometimes, you just want to beat the other team and earn a big, decadent celebration. But the Stars haven’t seen that this side of Y2K, and Dallas now has its third decade without a championship hockey season to look forward to this fall.

If you’ll forgive an indulgence from someone still repaying loans for a graduate degree in theology, some lines from a particular Psalm came to mind after the Blues knocked the Stars out of the playoffs in game seven, again:

For I envied the arrogant

when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

They have no struggle in their death;

their bodies are well-fed.

They are free of the burdens others carry

What is it like, that freedom, that joy that championships provide? That long, glorious summer of reflecting on success, long hoped for but never tasted?

I don’t know, to be honest. I don’t follow basketball enough to have been anything other than very pleased about the Mavericks’ victory, and as someone raised by a Dodgers fan, I have a whole lot clearer memory of the last two soul-crushing World Series than I do of that miraculous 1988 year. And, well, we don’t need to talk about the Cowboys. I’m sure Dallas radio will still be doing that this week, as always.

I was 13 when the Stars beat the Sabres, and I do remember that quite well. But my youth seems like another life these days. As it probably is, if we’re honest.

I’m impenitently moping, I know. That’s what happens when expectations show up, when a team wins you back after doing far more alienation over the last couple years (and months) than the 2016 summer ever suggested they might. We invest time and money and energy and love into this hockey team, however tertiary our connection, and we do so because we hope for our 3% lottery ticket’s numbers to come up. Each time it doesn’t, we feel a little foolish, but mostly just sad. Really, really sad.

When this game ended, I walked out into the kitchen and stared out the window. That sounds either profound or affected, but it wasn’t either. I just needed to step away, to look at something other than a hockey screen after spending something like 500 hours watching or writing about this team since October. That’s probably on the low end, given that I have to work a full-time job just to afford the luxuries (and they absolutely are that) of paying for the privilege of watching a hockey team I care about over the course of a long season while hoping my car doesn’t break beyond my financial ability to keep it running, that my body will decay slowly enough to keep me surprised each time I find a new wrinkle, a new limit to my range of motion. I looked out the window just because I needed to see something mysterious, I guess.

I’ve put almost a month’s worth of time into this team in the last seven months, and it ended this season by giving me another disappointing night. Maybe I should take a hint. If sports don’t make us happy, are they really worth it? Sure, they have moments, lots of them. But the disappointment lingers longer and heavier than those seem to, and death is a reality we can’t ignore forever.

I don’t want to write about heartbreak anymore. I don’t want to struggle to hope. I’m sure Jason Spezza will get home, and hug his wife and four daughters in turn, reflecting on how lucky he really is. I suppose all of us have things like that we can reflect on, but perhaps not in the way a millionaire athlete and his family can do. We, each one of us, look for narratives of hope, even if we hope for very different things. We want to know the world works a certain way (or doesn’t), and we want to hear the stories that promise such things (or vehemently deny them).

After 95 games, the 2018-19 Dallas Stars season has been set in stone, not silver. If nothing else, we can all say we were there, that we know the edges of that stone, and that we remember how unexpected certain parts of it were. We knew this season before that first goal by, well, do you remember who scored the first goal of the season? Could you ever have imagined that Mats Zuccarello would score the final one?

I desperately wish we could all be here together in a different way, that we could be rejoicing instead of grieving. That we could be reflecting on how important everyone’s contributions were that led to such success, not debating the faults and culpability of officials, coaches, players, managers, owners, and CEOs.

Neither the Blues nor the Leafs have won a Cup since 1967, over 50 years ago. Will any of us be here in 50 years, if it takes that long? These are the dark thoughts that creep in, even after a playoff run as unlooked-for as this one. There is a time to marvel at what was, but right now I’m still deep in the well of what might have been. And those walls are steeper every day.

***

Brett Ritchie was in the lineup in this one, because how on earth are we supposed to enjoy the final Stars game of the season without one of this year’s signature staples? The frequent presence on the first power play unit of Ken Hitchcock (and sometimes even Jim Montgomery) played a few minutes in this game seven, and he didn’t get the chance to do much aside from throw a couple of hits and take a penalty, because of course he took a penalty. I don’t know what Mattias Janmark and Tyler Pitlick were dealing with that made this choice seem desirable for the Stars (though Janmark has also taken four penalties in his playoffs so far, which is not great either), but I suppose you have to do something when your team gets outplayed, and this was a response, of sorts. It didn’t end up mattering, at least in an actively harmful sense. This game was lost not because of what the Stars did do, but what they weren’t able to do. The Stars’ fourth line was outright inconsequential in this one, as were the other three lines far too much of the time. When your best and your most unique weapons are equally ineffective, it’s a sobering task to take arms against a sea of Blues.

Radek Faksa is such an interesting player. He was the Jason Dickinson of the 2016 playoffs in a lot of ways, the young player stepping into his role, a big guy who looked like he could be a future 2C. He scored a goal off an egregious Joel Edmundson giveaway in that series, if you recall, but in this one, Faksa had a clean break in on Binnington, and he couldn’t beat the goaltender. It’s forgivable, but it’s no less frustrating for our being gracious. Dallas had chances to win this game, even if the Blues had the puck monumentally more than the Stars did.

Natural Stat Trick put it this way:

Scoring Chances: STL 40, DAL 28.

High-Danger Scoring Chances: DAL 13, STL 11.

Obviously the Stars didn’t really *want* to be outshot 31-3 across the final 40 minutes of regulation. That’s not a viable strategem no matter how great those three shots are. To that extent, Dallas was outplayed significantly, continuing the trend from game six in Dallas. Quality over quantity, until sheer numbers overwhelm. They will do that, most of the time.

One wonders what might have happened had the Stars been given a power play, but you can understand (as in game six) why the officials didn’t hand them out that liberally. Generally speaking, you draw more power plays when you have the puck, and St. Louis had it for most of the game through 60 minutes. And when the officials are being implicitly discouraged to call penalties, well, you have a game seven where they Let the Players Decide.

There were more penalties in this game than were called, on either team. Dallas had a couple of extra trips that I thought could have been blown down, and the Blues certainly were getting handsy on more than one occasion that was let go.

But this game was about Dallas trying to let Bishop deplete his bank account on the medium dangers while they saved up their hockey bucks to buy the odd high danger chance against Jordan Binnington. As such, it was fitting that the most painful non-call of the game would have resulted in a power play that, if converted, would almost certainly have won the game for the Stars.

Jaden Schwartz sees the loose puck off Roope Hintz’s wrap-around off the post, and he reacts by doing something that I’m fairly certain is illegal in every sport other than american football. It’s obviously interference, and the referee is watching the whole thing, but it’s more than his life is worth to award a power play in that situation if he can turn a blind eye, and he did so. It sucks, just as the lack of a whistle with Bishop down in game six also sucked.

But the Stars’ first goal was a pretty rotten break for the Blues too, even if the Stars pressured them into it. Any time a puck hits a referee, you hope nothing comes of it, unless something does and you like it. In this case, Mats Zuccarello gladly deposited the puck off the post and off Binnington and in. It was scary to think how easily that puck still could have stayed out, but the Stars fortunately got their goal, and the game was tied. So yeah, tough to complain too much about other misfortunes when you have a lucky bounce in the goal column to begin with.

By the way: Mats Zuccarello ended up tied with Seguin for the Stars’ lead in scoring for the playoffs. I’m not sure you can ask for anything more from a deadline trade than that, right? Zuccarello was everything you could ask for, but even he couldn’t spin straw into gold, or silver. You have to have the puck to score goals.

To that end, the Blues’ goal by Dunn/Maroon was itself a typical Blues goal, which is to say one that relied upon some good fortune after prolonged possession to find its way past a thoroughly prepared Ben Bishop.

The puck seemed to deflect on its way in through traffic, but regardless, that goal is exactly what the Blues’ game relies upon. And, like in so many prior games, Dallas still could have overcome it if they had capitalized on one of their much better chances. They did not.

John Klingberg also had a whale of a game, even if he did seem to get beaten by Robert Thomas on the game-winner after a slight pick play by Maroon. That was a world-class move and shot by Thomas, who was easily the best forward the Blues had. After this series, I found myself understanding just a bit better how those Tarasenko trade rumors cropped up last year. You need more from your best players than the odd power play goal.

But back to Klingberg, his penalty in the offensive zone—just after Benn missed an open net with a backhand on a rolling rebound—was itself indicative of how good he was, to an extent. Klingberg was creating chances when few others could, at one point just skating right up the ice through the neutral zone and nearly setting up a goal. His penalty came as he was skating back from behind the Blues’ net, and his stick got in between Tarasenko’s legs. The Stars’ PK killed it off because of course they did, and Klingberg continued being one of the only Stars with even a remote idea of how to make things happen at both ends of the ice.

That’s why it was so disturbing to see Binnington stop Klingberg’s chance with 15:12 left in the first overtime. It was like that scene in every superhero movie where the hero confidently goes to punch some villain, and suddenly the villain is invulnerable. Our confidence in the hero is shaken, and suddenly we knew that this was not Nashville Dallas was playing. This was St. Louis, where Texas dreams go to die and barbecue goes to be made unfathomably worse.

It’s tough to reflect on how good Ben Bishop was in this one, because ultimately, the game ended as soon as he failed to stop a shot. It’s a thankless position sometimes, but Bishop took the Stars to overtime despite the utter lack of goal support outside of one Mats Zuccarello, and he dragged them to a second overtime by sheer willpower. As with this season, the Stars got farther than they probably deserved to. And as with this season, the Stars now have to wrestle with whether making it two extra periods/rounds before their season ends is more indicative of what they’ve done well as a team, or what they’ve done poorly that it took such a goaltending performance to make it just barely possible.

When you consider the way these two teams have played, it’s no surprise that overtime ended up being a bit prolonged. Shots were even, and it became much more like the series we’ve been watching. That made it worse, ultimately. Inevitable doom is a gift of sorts, the assurance that hope need not enter the room. Resignation is a survival tool, or at least a palliative one. But with the Stars’ resurgence in the extra frame, suddenly we had no clue what to expect. How could you know, with this team?

Radek Faksa took a path to the bench that led to a pretty unfortunate offside in overtime with the Stars potentially coming in 3-on-2, but Faksa looked to be hurt as well, so you probably have to give him a pass there. Most of these players are probably the worse for wear, by this point. I suppose 95 games is a lot of games.

The most consistent element from regulation to overtime was the terrific Ben Bishop, who stoned Joel Edmundson from the slot, then Pietrangelo right after that, then Sundqvist after a dangerous Roman Polák turnover, then Schenn on a one-timer after a painful Hintz block.

But perhaps the most dramatic save of overtime came after an extended shift in the offensive zone by St. Louis’s third line of Bozak-Thomas-Maroon wore down Klingberg and Lindell, after which Schenn got another glorious chance on the doorstep, but was denied by Klingberg’s butt and Bishop’s cleanup efforts. It was a portentous shift, but the Stars’ weathered that storm. It would not be the last time that line generated a shot that bounced off something other than Bishop first.

For their part, the Dallas offense started trying new tactics, as Radulov ran into Binnington after getting bodied down by Dunn during a power move off the win. But you can understand why Radulov would choose to take that chance, given how few shots Dallas was getting. That’s the sort of player Radulov is, and crazier goals have been scored than that would have been. You never want to see a goalie get injured, but the Blues spent the whole series trying to get to Bishop with bumps and falls and sticks here and there, so you can understand why the Stars wouldn’t blush at taking a puck hard to the net.

The best chance, however, wasn’t even Klingberg’s shot from the slow, but a rebound to Cogliano to put the game on his stick with a yawning net with 6:02 left in first overtime. But the most playoff veteran of playoff veterans in this game put a backhand wide, just as Benn had done in regulation, hours before.

Teams change. Cogliano has been good for Dallas since his arrival, but it’s still jarring to realize that Devin Shore isn’t coming back (we think), that these are the Dallas Stars, or most of them.

The final period of the game featured a great start for Dallas, with them spending most of the first minute pressuring in the Blues’ zone. In fact, the second overtime really seemed to reflect the best of the Stars’ play against St. Louis in the series, with play tightening up in Dallas’s favor at both ends and the game speeding up to aid the Stars’ transition and create quality chances that Bishop could handle, at worst. The just-about moment of that one was, of course, the wrap-around by Benn, who almost stashed a bad mistake by Parayko. I think Benn probably wins it if he knows just how out of sorts Binnington is, as Benn really could have taken just a slightly rounder angle to turn and tuck the puck past the goalie’s discombobulated personage. Hindsight, though.

What are we left with, then? A game with some great chances, one goal, and no more hockey this season. You can wait outside in the rain with cue cards (or a lawn chair) or hold up a boombox in the front yard, but you really never do know if you’ll see the one you love at the time you hope to see them. Paths don’t always cross, and dreams are forgotten. Steve Ott was over on the Blues’ bench celebrating, but he never got to do that in Dallas. At least, not with the trophy they’re all chasing. Ott is older, and so are we. Another season has passed, and it’s left us with many discrete gifts, and one empty feeling.

***

I believe Dallas will be better because of this season. I didn’t believe that last year or the year prior, but this one really does have a Building Blocks aura about it. Roope Hintz, Miro Heiskanen, and Jason Dickinson are no longer players we’ll be watching at training camp to see how they hold up. Dallas has a larger group of core players, even as some of their better ones start (or already have started) to age out of it.

I don’t know how many seasons of high-level production Alex Radulov or Jamie Benn has left. Certainly John Klingberg and Tyler Seguin are still going to be great next year, but Ben Bishop has his work cut out for him to measure up to this season, even with the time he missed with injuries. And again, I’m not sure what to make of Radek Faksa or Mattias Janmark anymore. Val Nichushkin seems to have silenced the doubters for good, but only because they don’t feel the need to say anything anymore.

Jim Montgomery has surely learned a lot this year. I don’t believe he was “outcoached” or anything like that, truly I don’t. Dallas simply ran into a team that played well in enough games to win, while the Stars couldn’t quite find enough counterattack goals to hold the Blues’ relentless possession game in check. The Stars didn’t draw penalties all season, and that’s pretty clearly a function of this team’s system, not a bug. The Stars scored nine goals on special teams while allowing just two power play goals. A whopping +7 on special teams should really get you more than the same old second-round exit to the same old second-round team, but scoring is the thing in this league, more than ever. If Dallas has a to-do list for this summer, I’m not sure “get better scorers” is all you can put on it. Another loss to the Blues in the playoffs is more than I—or any of us, surely—can bear.

I have relished the gifts these 13 bonus games have brought us, and we’ll have plenty of time to celebrate and reflect on them further. We should, because these 13 games deserve to be celebrated. They are the most recent playoff run Dallas has put together right now, and hey, who knows when they’ll get another one? If there’s one thing the Stars have taught us to count on lately, it’s that they aren’t here to live up or down to our expectations. I suppose surprise is almost as good as joy, when you’re a child. Maybe sports rejuvenate us after all.