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Do You Believe in the Dallas Stars Yet?

It’s been a crazy sort of season, but the Stars’ latest victory over St. Louis seems like it should be silencing some doubters by now

NHL: FEB 08 Stars at Blues

But you are what you love

And not what loves you back

That’s why I’m here on your doorstep

Pleading for you to take me back

***

This season has been a progression into the only logical end these Dallas ever could have had once Ken Hitchcock was brought in. The demons of defensive liability have been thoroughly exorcised—though not without cost—and now we find ourselves staring down the final 27 games with the Stars needing nothing much more than .500 hockey to ensure a pretty decent dance card, come April.

The warts are well-known. The team can’t score, and the players who do score tend to find themselves in the second tier of the coaches’ circles of trust, although there is some progress on that front. When the goaltending has an off night, the team has little to no recourse at evens, as we saw against Minnesota, when the Wild essentially just had their way with the ice rink for the last five minutes of the game.

But the strengths—oh, the strengths! This is a team that can humble even the giants of the NHL, although that humbling sometimes looks more like outright theft than it does calculated subversion. The Stars have some targeted weapons that can give them chances against teams they might not otherwise be able to hang with. Elite defense and goaltending are not always fun to watch, but they are pretty darn effective over the long run—especially when you get just enough scoring to tip the scales. I mean, 31-19-5? Who wouldn’t have taken that record up to this point back in September? It is not by accident that Dallas has made themselves into the sort of team that opponents grimace at facing.

Still, these Stars are fickle. You’ve ridden the roller coaster this season, and facing the St. Louis Blues with John Stevens running the bench was almost laughable in its absurdity. The Stars have looked, this season, like some sort of test subject under the supervision of a particularly sadistic hockey god. “Oh, what if we turned Tyler Seguin into Ryan Garbutt for a season? And what if Corey Perry found his confidence before Seguin, just to really mess with the fans? These fools won’t know what to do.”

It’s an odd year, to be sure. Last season, at least, held the promise of a big trade deadline pickup who would push the Stars over the hump, and Mats Zuccarello nearly did that. This year, it’s hard to see that sort of deal coming to fruition. What you see is probably what you’re gonna get. One night, it’s the Stars giving up three unanswered goals to lose in the final minute against Minnesota, with their putative top goalie looking considerably less than elite. Then the next night, against a much better team, without Alexander Radulov, the Stars are scoring three unanswered tallies against the same goalie who frustrated their efforts last spring. It doesn’t really make sense.

Do you believe in the Dallas Stars yet?

***

The Maple Leafs’ trading for Jack Campbell was a rich bit of symmetry, if you’ve been following their season with one eye on the Dallas Stars of 2014-15, as I have. Here are the Leafs, in a strong division, barely hanging in the playoff race, and they end up spending a third round pick (two, actually) just to Get Some Goaltending Up In Here. Jack Campbell might not be Jhonas Enroth, but then again, he got them three of four points in back-to-back contests. That’s not nothing. It took Enroth like 10 games to get two victories in Dallas after his arrival, as you may recall. It was an agonizing season, with Spezza doing his best Joe Pavelski impression that year, scoring fewer goals than anticipated—though he’d more than make up for it the next year—as the Stars’ high-flying ways couldn’t outpace their out-to-drying malaise when it came to their goaltending. These Leafs are in a very similar boat.

As for this year’s Stars? Well, I still find myself going back and forth. The funny thing is that, in a desperate plunge to recover from the team’s perceived imbalance a few years ago, the Stars are now just as imbalanced in the opposite direction. And frankly, I preferred the goal scoring to the goal shoring-up. But maybe that’s because I’d rather head into battle with the biggest gun in the fight than with the strongest shield. In what have you placed your faith?

There’s something to be said for the resilience of the Dallas Stars, though. That word has been coming up a lot lately, and I do think it’s a psychological asset. Not that it isn’t hampered by the keen awareness of how tough it is for this team to score goals, of course, but I have to think there’s value in the Stars’ overcoming what they have, this year. When you play a system that demands this level of rigorous defensive positioning and protocol—perhaps to fault, at times—you’re well-trained to stick to your guns (or shields) when the world turns upside-down in the playoffs.

Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face, to quote Mike Tyson. And the Stars have almost happily taken their fair share of shots to the kisser this year. I guess the only thing that remains to be seen is whether that experience is going to result in a glass jaw or an iron will.

At this point, you can probably give up any hopes of a Grand Pivot to Offense. Certain players will get hot—how good was it to see Roope Hintz scoring again?—and certain other ones will have their ups and downs. Look, this is a team where Roman Polak has been healthy-scratched the same amount of times as Denis Gurianov. The Stars are either going to win playing what has become The Dallas Stars Way, or They Won’t. But I wouldn’t expect any giant stylistic shifts to happen any time soon. They just want to win, and they think this will do the trick. They’re on pace to outperform last year’s season by a good margin, too. All I’m saying is, it’s hard to blame someone for falling prey to confirmation bias when their biases keep getting confirmed by positive results. It’s how most of us live our lives, every day. Rock bottom is a real phenomenon, even if so many of us wish it wouldn’t have to be.

So, the Stars are going to play their final 27 games before (hopefully) entering a tournament that could stretch up to 28 games. What happens in the first set will tell us something about what might happen in the second set, but I’m not sure we haven’t already learned almost everything we really need to know. The April Dallas Stars are going to be These Dallas Stars, whatever opinions you might proffer to the contrary. When all is said and done, all you can really do is believe in them, or not. I can see why you might choose either option. But when it comes to the playoffs, anything other than hope doesn’t really feel like much of a choice at all.