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Afterwords: The Western Conference Has Run Out of Teams for the Stars to Beat

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Hopefully the East will be more challenging than that cakewalk

Jamie Benn, smiling for once.
Sportsnet

When every day begins this way

Gets you down and can drive you mad

The daily grind can freak your mind

But life isn’t all that bad

***

It’s fitting, I suppose, that in the season of three different seasons standing on each other’s shoulders underneath a trench coat, the Stars are about to enter a fourth playoff series.

Personally, I stopped trying to apply conventional wisdom to this team back in January. It happened in the midst of a full-throated roar from 70,000 people in the Cotton Bowl, all of them serenading Alex Radulov’s one-timer with unabashed joy—a goal that nobody would have guessed would presage another Russian’s game-winning one-timer from the same circle eight months later. That moment was when I gave up on knowing what this team was or wasn’t, this year. Every team is flawed, but any team can change. And these Dallas Stars, as we now know, are not just any team.

Someone with less humility than I would probably brag about picking the Stars to beat Vegas in five, but that’s not how we do things here. I bask, today, only in the accomplishments of others. The Stars’ victory isn’t nearly as unlikely as some in the national media have tried to make it seem, but this fanbase has most certainly been conditioned to heartbreak, ever since the Stars’ last Stanley Cup Final appearance. I don’t blame a single person for doubting, particularly considering how dominant Vegas was this year.

A couple folks were spending last night on Twitter trying to remember all of the Stars’ backup goalies over the past decade or so. It was a fun little exercise in exorcising the demons of so much ineptitude since the 2008 run, but in thinking about it, I wonder if there was something more going on there. Those backup goalies are the perfect shorthand for a season, so in listing your Jussi Rynnases, your Andrew Raycrofts, and your Matt Climies, you’re not only rattling off obscure names, but you’re identifying each season with its (usually) most inconsequential player. It’s a reductive exercise, summarizing each season with a symbol (whether or not the backup was good that year) of its futility.

But this season, by which I really mean the two seasons tenuously linked by the 2019-20 moniker, will not be able to be summarized the same way, and that’s entirely because, irony of ironies, of the backup goaltender.

After Johan Hedberg and Mike Smith started out My NHL strong, the Stars cashed in all their chips for the 2008 run, and spent the next decade wandering in the backup wilderness. And now, at long last, Anton Khudobin has gotten them back to glory.

That save on Max Pacioretty—you may remember Stars fans salivating over the possibility of trading for him only a couple years ago—was exactly what Khudobin has been for this team since the playoffs began. Anton Khudobin, about whom much has been written, deserves every word. What more can you really say about the affable goaltender with ineffable goaltending? He has come up with “that save” so often that you just expect it, now. That does something for a team. Certainly, it does something for a fanbase. This whole thing could’ve come crashing down because of an injury to Ben Bishop. But finally, Jim Nill’s goaltending plans have worked out to circumvent calamity, and in the most lovable way.

The Dallas Stars will hang a playoff banner this season for the first time in two decades. And whether that’s just for the Campbell Bowl or for a Cup, you’re fully excused for expressing some elation at what the Stars have done this season. Even if you’re not necessarily ready to exhale just yet, it’s worth appreciating just how much fun this playoff run has ended up being.

The Stars have gone 4-0 in overtime games. Just one overtime winner is a lasting memory, but the Stars have gotten four in three series, with nary a heartbreak in there. That’s the same Dallas team that went nearly eight years without a playoff overtime victory, from Morrow in 2008 to Cody Eakin against St. Louis in 2016.

But it’s not even just the overtime victories themselves. The way they’ve happened has been nothing short of lavish:

  • The Joe Pavelski hat-trick goal with 12 seconds left staved off a 3-1 series deficit—and that goal was just to get to overtime against Calgary, leading to Alex Radulov’s tip-in.
  • This, of course, was the most dramatic moment since...Jamie Oleksiak’s—Jamie Oleksiak!—last-minute goal just two games prior. That was perhaps the first sign that these Stars were more resilient that teams of playoffs past.
  • And of course that Calgary series ended with another hat trick, as Denis Gurianov finally ascended to the heights, following Miro Heiskanen’s fire-starting goal with four of his own as the Stars roared back from a 3-0 deficit to stomp the Flames out of Alberta.
  • After squandering an impossible 3-1 series lead against the Terrifying Avalanche, the Stars’ 13th or 14th forward Joel Kiviranta—you are, still, reading this right—scored a hat trick, with yet another game-tying goal to save their season late in the third period, and the capper coming in overtime from Andrej Sekera (and Jamie Oleksiak). This, and I cannot stress this enough, is not supposed to happen in the NHL, and especially in this season.
  • After killing off a late delay of game penalty (cough) in the third period, Alex Radulov ended an overtime against Vegas just 31 seconds in with a ridiculous shot, robbing the Golden Knights of the chance to build momentum in the series.
  • And finally, Jamie Benn grabbed his team by the scruff of the neck and dragged them back into a game after falling down 2-0 against the supposedly best team in the Western Conference. Shortly thereafter, Joel Kiviranta scored yet another power play goal—again, this is a 13th forward we’re talking about, coming through with his second power play goal in the last six games—to erase a Vegas lead—with one Alex Tuch in the box, I might add—and the Knights never recovered. Dallas was in control from that moment on, nearly winning it in regulation against a Vegas team whose hopes were crumbling before their eyes.
  • And in overtime, after all the questionable officiating, it was the officials who huddled and finally came up with the right call to put the Stars on the power play. And after a middling start to the power play, it was John Klingberg and Denis Gurianov who combined for a blistering one-timer past Robin Lehner. Denis Gurianov, who just a couple seasons ago was being scratched in AHL playoff games. Denis Gurianov, who was drafted in front of Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor. Denis Gurianov, who couldn’t earn Jim Montgomery’s trust.

This playoff run is impossibly weird. It will always be remembered as That Bubble Year (at least, we hope it’s singular). But hockey is hockey is hockey, and in this sterilized vacuum of tactical space, the Dallas Stars have been handing out memories with reckless abandon. With no fans in the stands, the Stars have been rewarding their fans with the liberality of a team completely alien to a 1-7-1 start, a disgraced ex-coach, or a feckless offense.

The Stars, last night, gave us all something to cherish. With a feast this sumptuous, I don’t think there’s a limit on how much perspective you can bring to the table.

Jamie Benn is tied with Miro Heiskanen for the team lead in points. He is tied with Radulov for second on the team in goals, after Gurianov. And it’s not just the scoring—in a way, the scoring has been just the logical consequence of what he’s done to will this team forward, to make things possible that shouldn’t be. Jamie Benn isn’t just turning back the clock—he’s altering his legacy, rewriting history by channeling the same forces of nature that swirled around him back when he began his career playing on Mike Modano’s wing. The team is not going home, because Jamie Benn looks like someone who has finally found his home, once again.

You could go on and on—and boy, don’t you want to? Don’t you want to revel in the accomplishments of this group? Don’t you want to talk late into the night about the Finnish Mafia, the Hintz-Gurianov reflection of the Benn-Seguin dyad, the Klingberg-Heiskanen reverberations, the Jamie Oleksiak apotheosis, and the Joe Pavelski Masterclass in Playoff Hockey?

Don’t you just want to enjoy it? To finally let go of your doubts about usage, your concerns about ice time, your philosophical objections to Corey Perry, and your bemoaning of the overpaid and underproducing scorers?

You don’t have to let go of anything, though. This team isn’t in the Gravy Stage anymore. In fact, it’s the obstacles that have made this success so delightful. That we can feel this way about this team makes it more special, because who else can appreciate what this victory can mean more than those of us who have followed Benn and Seguin and Klingberg from the 7-6 defeats of 2014 to the 1-0 defeats of 2019, to the record-setting scoring of the Colorado Bonanza series that already feels like a memory?

Bring all the baggage. Hold onto your worry. Because the Stars are the Western Conference Champions, and that title can withstand all the skepticism you have. Dallas beat the two best teams in the West, and they went up 3-1 on both of them. At some point in the second game against Calgary, the Stars kind of just decided to start kicking every butt they saw, and aside from the self-inflicted hiccups against Colorado, they have kicked all the butts.

Do you know how hard it is to make it to the Stanley Cup Final? Do you know how impossible it is to make it there without your Vezina-nominated goaltender? Or without your chosen coach? Or without your highest-paid player producing much offense? Do you know, in short, how unlikely it is for any team to do what the Stars have just, somewhat handily, done?

Some things can’t really be known until time passes, I think. Some moments just have to be lived, and it’s only the reflection that ends up showing you what they really were. But if any fanbase is capable of appreciating just how utterly bonkers it is that their team has earned the Western Conference Champions banner they’ll hang at the start of next season, it is this one.

Alex Radulov and Blake Comeau have done what they are paid to do, and then some. Jason Dickinson (and his face) have been there when called upon, filling in for Radek Faksa in a crucial moment against Vegas’s terrifying offense. Roope Hintz hasn’t had the shooting results he did last year, but he’s still been a wonderful player for Dallas, and a necessary one. Andrew Cogliano, after weathering the unthinkable (for him) healthy scratches earlier, re-entered the lineup and created a goal last game, and was all over the ice in this one.

Tyler Seguin blocked a shot, face-first, skates out. He hobbled to the bench, then returned shortly thereafter, because no way is Tyler Seguin going to miss this. He knows, perhaps as well as anyone on the team, just how special this is, what the Stars are doing.

Jamie Oleksiak has already become a media darling from all the old-school types you can find, and he’s done it by being a version of Roman Polak that even new-school fans can appreciate, scoring on a breakaway to suddenly make Robin Lehner appear eminently mortal. He has been what the Stars had stopped daring to hope he could become. And more.

Mattias Janmark was pushing back, in this one. He was fighting, scratching, and skating. He isn’t a goal-scorer anymore, if he ever was to begin with—but he’s still a player you can’t not notice, when he’s wheeling the puck up the ice, swerving with an alacrity that makes you forget about osteochondritis dissecans, about how he, like Stephen Johns, knows what it is to wonder if you’ve played your final hockey game, and then to return.

Miro Heiskanen is just beginning his story, and yet it feels like he already deserves a novel, doesn’t it? The way he was gutting out extended shifts, making laughably sly plays look routine, and defusing dangerous situations with the ever-present threat of offense...well, it’s just special. It’s so, so special. Don’t miss a shift of his. Look as closely as you can, try to find a new detail at which to marvel. He will reward the careful observer, always.

John Klingberg waited. He has been waiting for this moment for six years, but he had to wait just a split second before firing a puck on net that turned into a Kiviranta power play goal. Klingberg was always good at seeing things in bullet time, but he has rediscovered, this year, the art of real patience, of understanding what is already and not yet true. John Klingberg has found, in the shadow of Miro Heiskanen, the limelight he has always deserved. He is only three points behind Miro Heiskanen, by the way, well on his way to breaking all the same franchise records for postseason scoring that Heiskanen was doing back in the Colorado series.

The beauty of life is the ability to see more than one thing at once. Context makes things richer, more complex and more beautiful. Media narratives are almost always going to simplify, to compare, to sum up. But the beauty of being a fan is that you can celebrate that Denis Gurianov one-timer while also remembering that Tobias Stephan shutout Chicago for 59:58, and then lost in overtime. You can remember the terrible sweaters that now seemed as aesthetically bankrupt as the franchise was financially.

Dallas Stars hockey, right now, is a wealth of ridiculous joy that stands in stark contrast to the uncertainty of the world outside the bubble. That we get to participate in it, even if it’s just digitally and vicariously, is ludicrous, gratuitous, and special. There is no reason the Dallas Stars should be here right now, except for all of the reasons that they are here right now.

Esa Lindell, Corey Perry, Jamie Benn, and Joel Hanley got to wear matching baseball hats last night and take a picture together. That means something so absurdly unique and unlooked-for to fans of this team that the only thing to do is, well, what a gift always demands of us: to be present, and to enjoy it.

Because if Jamie Benn can smile right now, then we can, too.