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Dallas Stars Near-Miss Reminiscences: What 2000, 2007, 2011, and (maybe) 2020 Had in Common

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It’s been a couple decades of Almost-But-Not-Quite for the Stars. This season, however it ends, will likely be more of the same.

Dallas Stars v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

I said let’s all meet up in the year 2000

Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown

***

The season will wrap up, one way or another. From everything I’ve read, it seems likely that the NHL has too much to lose by canceling the season outright, so barring a much worse spike than most major cities have seen thus far, we will probably see some more games this season.

That said, it’s hard to feel that good about the games as games, and as the means to a potential Dallas Stars Stanley Cup championship. It really hasn’t felt like the year, you know?

But of course, the Kings won as the eight seed, the Blues last year were rubbish for half the year, and so on. Anything can happen. But with the Dallas Stars in the 21st century, the “anything” tends to be the other thing. And, given the team’s willing embrace of a slow, defensive system that relies upon perfection in net until such time as one of the team’s three designated goal-scorers can find the net, it’s probably safe to say that none of us feels optimistic about those fortunes reversing course in whatever playoffs might be played this year.

As I’ve been thinking about this season, I keep coming back to how they were on pace to have their second-best season of the decade until their six-game losing streak—and it was a special kind of losing streak, the sort where the team definitely deserved to lose most of those games. And yet, it was tough to feel hopeful. It wasn’t just that the Stars weren’t a President’s Trophy contender; it was the fact that you had a tough time feeling optimistic about Dallas winning even a single round of the playoffs.

And this has been the trend, not only since last year, or 2016, or 2014. No, this has been, as it is for most teams, the reality of Life After Winning. Rare is the franchise with a sustained peak, with championships like Pittsburgh, spread across a player’s career with the same team, with repeated kicks at the can. Life as a Dallas Stars fan has been much like, say, life as a Sabres fan since the 2004 lockout. There were a couple of great seasons, sure, but never a Cup Final. The team at one point looked exciting, but it also had a prolonged (nearly a decade now!) stretch of no playoffs. Did you know this is going to be the Sabres’ ninth consecutive season with no playoff berth? Kinda makes that 2009-2013 stretch in the wilderness for Dallas feel like a hiccup.

Still, there are three distinct seasons that stick out to me when I think of what this season in particular feels like, or is likely to end up feeling like. Those seasons are the 1999-00 loss to Jersey in the Final, the 2007 first-round exit against Vancouver, and the 2011 collapse on the last day of the season in Minnesota, when the team simply had to beat the Wild in a game that meant nothing to the moribund Minny squad, and didn’t. Allow to me to elucidate.

It started in 2000, with Dallas’s world-class team starting to show some cracks. After rocking around a +60 goal-differential for three straight seasons, Dallas’ offense started to slow down as its defense grew less stingy, although they still had a league-best penalty kill. They ended the regular season sitting at +27, which was good, but not nearly on the elite level fans had become accustomed to. (As an aside: New Jersey was 2nd in the NHL that year in goals-for, with 251, compared to Dallas’s 211.)

And so, in Brenden Morrow’s first year as a Dallas Star, he would have his best shot at winning a Stanley Cup with the team. It was a great year, in a vacuum; but for a team that was cheated out of a real shot at back-to-back Cup wins thanks to the dirty Bryan Marchment hit on Joe Nieuwendyk in 1998, this loss felt like the end of an era even before it became apparent that this was indeed the case. Ed Belfour, Brett Hull, and Ken Hitchcock wouldn’t last much longer in Dallas, and neither would Nieuwendyk or the rising star Jamie Langenbrunner, as they also left town in the Jason Arnott trade (in what was probably still a decent deal in terms of talent, if not in building good will among fans).

That 2000 season also felt like especially hard because fans knew exactly what they were missing, this time. That 1999 championship was and will always be a wonderful gift, but it also awakened Dallas to what hockey glory felt like. To come so close to winning another one, only to miss out? That set the tone for the Stars that reverberates even today.

If 2000 was the last chance to strike with the team at its peak, then 2006-07 was the last chance for Dallas to earn glory for its leaders before they began to fall off their pace. Mike Modano only scored 22 goals in 2007, but consider that he did so while playing only 59 games—and that those 22 goals would be the high-water mark of his remaining years, even though he played 80 games in each of the next two seasons.

It might seem weird, at first blush, to say this was a last gasp, considering the Western Conference Final run that we saw the following year, but hear me out: 2008 saw both Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov battling significant injuries, with Lehtinen only dressing for two of the games in the Detroit series after missing over 30 games during the regular season. Zubov, meanwhile, had missed the entire Anaheim series, and had also (perhaps mercifully) missed the marathon game six against San Jose. In other words, 2008 was much more about Morrow, Richards, and Turco than the old guard remaining from 2000 (though Modano did have two crucial goals in the San Jose series).

So anyway, back to 2007. I’ve written at length about this series before, as well as its ignominious end, but it’s worth revisiting just how much of a missed opportunity that year was. Dallas got goaltending every bit as good as they did in 1999 for a seven-game series, only to face a certain triumvirate of demigods named Sedin, Sedin, and Luongo. Brenden Morrow was in his prime already—that overtime goal in game five was elation itself, traveling as it did over a goalie who had continually proven that nothing would get through him—and while Zubov would once again miss the final game of the series, Lehtinen and Modano were still forces to be reckoned with. And hey, they also had Ladislav Nagy (who was better than you remember), Loui Eriksson, Jussi Jokinen, and Mike Ribeiro. This team was good.

The Stars in 2020 have some players at or descending from their peaks in Jamie Benn, Ben Bishop, Tyler Seguin, and others, and they also have some rising stars on their heels. This may well end up feeling like a period of missed opportunity, when the team was good enough to do some damage, but ended up stumbling for one reason or another.

In a way, the Canucks series mirrored San Jose the following year, but in reverse order. (So, uh, I guess like a mirror.) Had Dallas managed to pull a victory out of the never-ending 4OT Game One in Vancouver, would the series have gone their way? It certainly might have, and Vancouver nearly took down the eventual champions in Anaheim later on that spring; it’s impossible to know for certain, but I do wonder if Dallas might have had an even better shot at the Cup in 2007 than they did in 2008, what with facing an all-time team like those Red Wings after leaving everything they had on the ice against San Jose.

And of course, Turco got three shutouts and lost the series against Vancouver. It felt so needless, at the time. These Stars weren’t nearly as hard-up for scoring (not that any team was, with power plays being called so frequently) as they have been the last couple seasons, and yet they just ran into the wrong goaltender on the wrong team at the wrong time. Much like dating, successful playoff runs are all about timing, and the 2007 Stars might have gone the distance, if not for getting off on the wrong foot. They didn’t exactly get off to a great start this season, either, you may recall.

Finally, we must unfortunately travel to a season with no playoff berth to speak of, a season that could have been a beacon of hope in the darkness, but one that ended up symbolizing the haplessness of the bankruptcy happenstance for this franchise.

Did you remember that in 2010-11, Jamie Benn had an NHL-best 10-game point streak? Indeed, the Stars got to the final game of the season with a chance to make the playoffs in large part because of Jamie Benn coming into his own as a bona fide top-flight player.

You might also remember 2011 as the final year of Brad Richards’s time in Dallas. A lot of fans remember that year with frustration, as Richards exercised his no-trade clause to prevent the Stars from trading him at the deadline, meaning the Stars would eventually lose him “for nothing,” as the saying goes.

But you might also remember that Richards, in only 72 games, scored the most goals (28) of any season in his career while playing 22 minutes a night. So while the Stars didn’t end up getting a cherry on top of that fabulous trade that brought Richards in at the 2008 deadline in the first place, they did get value for money, and then some. Richards scored 91 points in 2009-10, by the way. Do we understand how bonkers that performance was, on that team? I suspect we do not. That trade remains the gold standard for deadline deals in Stars history.

This team was, ah, not without its flaws, finishing with a -6 goals differential. And along with that bit of mediocrity (the 2020 Stars are at +3 as of this writing), the 2010-11 season does bear one other strikingly unfortunate similarity to this season regardless of how 2020 turns out: a six-game losing streak in March. Yes, despite finding themselves on the cusp of a playoff berth after 81 games were played, the Stars did their best not to get there, going 1-5-3 in mid-March (and with all but one of those games against Western Conference teams, to boot), only to turn around and win four straight to lunge back into contention for the final spot in the West with one game to play.

As with most teams, this squad was top-heavy, as middling teams tend to be. Morrow, Ribeiro, and Eriksson all had fantastic seasons. Kari Lehtonen was typically great, considering that he was playing in front of a papier-mâché defense (with apologies to Jeff Woywitka and Stephane Robidas) until the arrival of Alex Goligoski. And James Neal would have rounded out an exceptional top-five forward unit, if not for his (and Matt Niskanen’s) departure for the aforementioned Goligoski. Brad Lukowich also played a handful of games in his final NHL season, and Jamie Langenbrunner was brought back with a mid-season deal for a few dozen games. Tom Wandell and Toby Petersen were capturing my heart with their gutsy play, and Jason Williams and Brandon Segal were also on the team. This squad did not have depth, but the skill they did have was at its height, which made the hardscrabble success stories on the periphery of the lineup that much more endearing. To me, anyway.

But this season was all about how it ended. Loui Eriksson got three assists, and Brad Richards added a goal and a helper himself, and it wasn’t enough. In fact, this game was the nine tailors of the Stars’ post-lockout heyday, hailed appropriately enough with a game-winning goal by the man who scored the Stars’ only regulation goal in that game six against San Jose back in 2008: Antti Miettinen.

The Stars were up 2-1 in this game, you may have forgotten. All they had to do was lock things down (or ramp things up and score more!) and they would be in the playoffs.

But instead, they fell behind 3-2 after Colton Gillies scored the first of his six career goals (on a play that looked for all the world like it was offside). A Goligoski bomb on a 5-on-3 tied things back up, but that would end up being the final goal of the Stars’ season, as Miettinen would find space on the back door, with Brenden Morrow practically within an arm’s reach of him. Just as Miettinen’s 2008 goal made Morrow’s most iconic goal possible, so did this goal erase any possibility of Morrow getting another playoff run with the Stars.

The 2019-20 season has been full of nonsense and drama and world-altering events, and also more nonsense. The likelihood is that, if any teams are to enjoy playoff hockey at the end of this season, the Stars will be one of them. And yet, both the 2010-11 Stars and this year’s version put up exactly 82 points through 69 games. Maybe the Stars’ good points will be enough to see them through whatever remnants of the season we’re going to get, but you could be forgiven for surveying the past two decades and saying that they’ve been here before.

Granted, we’d love to be in a position in this world to have hockey again with just about any result. No one’s arguing that. But I do wonder what any of it will look like, if and when it gets back up and running. It will be like a hard reset on an old laptop, and for a team that has been starting slow for a few seasons now, you have to wonder if we’re going to see more of the same. If we do, though, at least it will be familiar. It’s always nice to see old friends.