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Afterwords: Rejoice! The Dallas Stars Have Won a Playoff Series, Again

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This used to be a rare thing, you may recall

Dallas Stars v Calgary Flames - Game Six Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Instead of lyrics, I just want to thank Daryl Reaugh, who brought this video to my attention back in like, 2004, on his “Razor with an Edge” blog.

***

I didn’t put that video up there to gloat, just to be clear. The Flames are about as demoralized as a playoff team can be right now, and there’s no virtue in taunting a vanquished foe.

No, I actually began with that video for two reasons: First, because it’s amazing and everyone should watch it, right now, again, thrice, okay. Seriously, it is that good. Aside from the [everything] that makes it so, you also get the bonus of a young Brett Hull and Joe Nieuwendyk, singing after what must have been some early conversations about becoming the GM of a team that didn’t exist yet.

Second, I included that video because I remember first watching it in college, like 15 years ago, when Daryl Reaugh included it on his old blog (remember that?) on the Stars’ website. And when I think about the Calgary Flames, then and now, I can’t help but think about what playoff series victories mean to Stars fans.

In 2002-03, the Stars rebounded from a down year in which they had seen Ken Hitchcock be fire and the club miss the playoffs for only the second time since moving to Dallas. Come spring of ‘03, Dallas eliminated Edmonton for the fifth time in six years before losing a heartbreaker of a series to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

From there, the Stars’ playoff fortunes turned. Bounced in five games by the Avalanche in successive seasons, then the Vancouver Tragedy (sorry, Marty). The Stars had only the 2008 run before the real desert began in 2009, when five straight seasons ended without a playoff series to get disappointed about in the first place.

When I think about what this victory over Calgary means, I find myself jumping ahead to dread once again, and I hate that. Yes, Colorado look—unlike this year’s Flames—red hot indeed, and even last night’s stupidly wonderful outcome doesn’t change that. The road is long from here to there.

But the Stars just won a playoff series after a season from hell, and that’s worth enjoying, worth delighting in, worth basking in, for a while. The good sorts of handshakes can be precious few in life, and often moreso in hockey.

After 2003, the Stars went 13 years with only one season in which they won a playoff series. There are lots of reasons for that, and the regular season isn’t meaningless even if the playoffs don’t plan out, sure; but still, it’s hard not to feel the terrible ache of not being there again, once you’ve been. That experience—one exultant year in 2008 surrounded by heartbreak of all sorts—was the majority of my adult fandom, until the last few years.

Now, all of a sudden, the Stars are expected to win, unless they start playing so badly that they’re not. This team should be better, we tell each other, and sometimes they have been.

This year now marks the third time in five years that Dallas have advanced to the second round of the playoffs. The circumstances are unimaginable, but the hockey is still there, with a lot of effort. And boy, when good things happen, they are still good, even if your raucous cheering is mostly to yourself and the internet.

I want to reflect on this series, to talk lovingly about how Denis Gurianov has been transformed (by himself, as much as anyone) from a supposed draft bust to, well, Denis Gurianov! in spite of so many things. The sheer absurdity of it would, in more normal circumstances, be among the greatest sorts of joy a hockey fan can feel. Four goals in a game six to cap a comeback from 3-0? After the hat-trick heroics of Joe Pavelski just a few days before? Alongside Miro Heiskanen, treating the playoff scoring race like an amusing antique shop in which to browse whenever he pleases? It’s just too much. Or, it should be.

The list is longer still. Anton Khudobin, completing his apotheosis from lovable backup to dominant playoff performer in his mid-thirties? Sublime. John Klingberg, rediscovering his game in these, of all circumstances, while also unabashedly praising Heiskanen as the best player on the team? Unfathomable, in earlier times. Rick Bowness, stepping into the interim head coaching role in impossible circumstances, keeping his team focused and composed enough to overcome last-minute deficits, no-goal reviews, and 3-0 deficits? These are things we didn’t see in the past. Can you imagine even a team as dominant as the 2016 Stars staring at that disastrous Game 7, earlier in the first period, and finding a way to flip the script?

These are all wonderful things, and I think they deserve to be wallowed in, whatever happens next. You live for the playoffs, as a hockey fan, and this series was, somehow, a classic. Jamie Olekisak’s game-winner? Alexander Radulov’s? These moments are sweet in a vacuum, and sumptuous in context. Perfection never made an interesting playoff run anyway.

For Dallas Stars fans, this series is worth loving simply because of how rare it has been to win a playoff series, yes; but it’s also intrinsically great, for the reasons I just mentioned, and more. You don’t need me to tell you either of these things, but hopefully we can at least give ourselves permission to celebrate the good times, particularly now.

***

Did you see Anton Khudobin’s save on Lindholm to keep the game reasonable in the first? His save on Sam Bennett in the second to avoid giving the Flames any life? These moments were so crucial, and yet they seemed almost a given once Dallas had grabbed some momentum. So many years went by with the Stars never being able to find those moments, that save, those goals. Last night, Anton Khudobin swallowed an atrocious 10 minutes of hockey, and decided to keep giving what he had to give. It was plenty. For a team that wandered in the backup goalie wilderness for close to a decade, this is bliss, surely.

Joe Pavelski scored 14 goals in the regular season, and he’s scored almost half that many in the playoffs already. It’s easy to construct narratives of leadership and quiet composure, but when your leaders are backing up those narratives with bowls fulla goals, it’s hard not to give them the benefit of the doubt. If anyone on this team really has a switch to flip come playoff time, Pavelski seems like the sort of guy who would, and did. He is tied for the NHL lead in goal-scoring, alongside vaunted names like Horvat, and Gurianov.

Jamie Oleksiak has finally become the player Ken Hitchcock so badly wanted him to be, three years ago. However it happened, you have to grateful that the Stars have given themselves four homegrown (well, mostly) draft-picks to make up a top four that Rick Bowness can lean so heavily upon. Oleksiak has truly become the sort of player who fits on a pairing with the best player on the team, and that’s wonderful. In this series, Jamie Oleksiak was on the ice for five goals scored at 5v5, and zero goals against. Penalties aside, that’s some ridiculous work for someone playing heavy minutes against a playoff team. Well done, Jamie Oleksiak.

Also, how ridiculous is it that I find “best player on the team” to somehow be underselling Miro Heiskanen? I know we were all told how good he was, how good he could be, and how good he is, even in the midst of a dreary (at times) season. But still, you have to shake the cobwebs from your mind every now and then just to avoid taking his unholy talent for granted. You surely remember his first game, his second shift. Now we are seeing a player fully confident in his abilities, and fully aware of just how much his team needs him (as most any team would). And he’s responded, at 21 years old, by doing pretty much whatever he wants, doing things like playing every other shift while also scoring a vital power play goal to get the Stars going after they’d forgotten to start the car. He is one point behind Nathan MacKinnon—he of the dynamic, offensive team who just drubbed Arizona with seven goals in back-to-back gamesfor the scoring lead in the entire NHL in the playoffs.

Radek Faksa scored a huge goal on the power play. His line, by the way, held the Flames’ top line (inasmuch as they were able to be matched against them, which Bowness did whenever he could) to zero points at 5v5 in this series. Seriously, think about that. Imagine if the Stars’ top line (purported) of Benn, Seguin, and Radulov, had done that. Sure, they almost did that, at first. But Jamie Benn found his way to a 1-2=3 line at 5v5, while Radulov put up a 2-1=3 scoring line. Respectable, if not quite worthy of their paychecks. But nowhere close to the utter dearth of help Gaudreau and Monahan were able to muster at evens (Lindholm had one whole assist, claims Natural Stat Trick, though I think that happened after Ward had split the lines up). That sort of shutdown work exemplifies a humble group of guys going about their work with excellence, whatever you think of the job description. Ken Hitchcock was always lauded for helping players to know their roles as clearly as possible. And given how much Dallas was able to tilt the ice when all was said and done, it’s fair to say that Faksa (and Cogliano) did yeoman’s work: each of them had only a single goal against in the entire series, at 5v5.

Even Seguin and Benn, for all the criticism levied, combined for that huge goal in game five that proved crucial, in a 2-1 win. Whatever is going on there (and it’s probably two different things), you can still rejoice for the ways in which they succeeded. And who knows what the next series will bring?

Seeing players like Joel Kiviranta—how about his night on that line, eh?—step in for the injured workhorse Mattias Janmark and grab their first playoff apple is just sweet. And Janmark’s work in this series, by the way, shouldn’t go unnoticed. He led the Stars with an outstanding 14 high-danger shot attempts for and just 2 against, while he was on the ice. (And since those are on-ice stats and not individual, that means other people were shooting a lot of those shots for Dallas, which is good.) In true Janmarkian fashion, none of those attempts were actually converted—in either direction. Again, that’s been this team, hasn’t it? Doing a lot of the boring things, and hoping the heroes show up. Eventually, in this series, they did. And how.

We could go on, but you know what? Let’s just enjoy it. The warts are what they are, but the Stars have flexed some surprising muscles in the last few games, so why not celebrate what has been done instead of worrying for what’s to come? They have worked hard, and suffered much to get this far. There is nothing at all wrong with honoring their labors for a little while.

In the end, the Stars ended up wrecking Calgary so badly that they pulled both goalies. No wonder those images of Kari Lehtonen sitting atop the net were circulating again, last night. It was utterly laughable, from one side of things. If you’re a Flames fan, then all we can say is: we know this feeling, and we are sorry.

(But not that sorry.)

Today, the Stars will be playing soccer, baseball, frisbee, and just generally being frivolous with their time, basking in the sunlight. They have earned that, and more. This is no finish line, and everyone knows that. But it is a victory, and I’m not sure playoff wins are ever anything less than hard-won. The Stars are going to take a day to enjoy themselves, and to rejoice. Go and do likewise.