Before the postseason began, I started to write a piece loosely titled “Why the Dallas Stars are a Dark Horse Stanley Cup Contender.” The basic premise was that the Stars traditionally play a boring but safe style of hockey that would be perfectly suited for playoff games in which everyone was shaking off rust and making ample mistakes.
Throw in some extra rest for the Stars’ older players, top-tier goaltending by recent Vezina Trophy runner-up Ben Bishop, and the potential for young stars like Denis Gurianov and Miro Heiskanen to steal the spotlight, and you had a recipe for a team that could go the distance.
However, in my infinite wisdom, I decided to wait until after the play-in round to finish and publish the article, figuring it would be more impactful to wait until the “real” playoff started. The Stars proceeded to lay an egg with a wretched Round Robin performance, and I discarded the draft as it was clear the Stars might not even make it out of the first round, let alone win the Stanley Cup.
And yet here they are. Western Conference Champions.
Of course, how they got here is almost as crazy as the fact that they’ve made it this far. I was right in that the pause was beneficial to the team’s veterans — Jamie Benn and Joe Pavelski have been fantastic this postseason. And it goes without saying that Heiskanen and Gurianov have made their names known to the hockey world.
But everything else? Never saw it coming. While most teams would sink without their starting goaltender, the Stars have been blessed with Anton Khudobin. Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera have had a meaningful, positive impact on the ice. Miro Heiskanen is not even the most celebrated Finn on the roster over in Finland — that title belongs to Joel Kiviranta.
Perhaps most shocking, however, has been the Stars’ coaching strategy throughout the playoffs. Sure, the most recent round against the Vegas Golden Knights was typical low-scoring Stars hockey, but don’t forget that the Stars were one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL at the end of Rounds 1 and 2. In seven of their eight wins, they scored a minimum of five(!) goals.
After years of the Stars preaching about the importance of playing “playoff hockey” throughout the regular season, Rick Bowness changed to a completely different style to defeat the high-scoring Colorado Avalanche. He knew that the Stars would likely never contain Nathan MacKinnon and company, thus he let the Stars take more risks and open up the offense. Then when it came time to face a more physical, possession based team in Vegas, he shifted back to a shut-down approach. Dallas tailored their strategy to fit their opponent, instead of simply sticking with one and hoping it would work against everyone.
That has led us to the present, a wonderful gift in which the Dallas Stars are but four wins away from their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. And I ask you this — why shouldn’t the Stars win it all this year?
As we wrote yesterday, this year was already the strangest in franchise history long before COVID-19 showed up and forced a season stoppage. If 2019-20 is going to be the craziest season in NHL history, then who better than the Stars to be its champion? This is playoff destiny, the stuff of legends.
Of course, standing in their way will be one of two teams, each with their own compelling storylines in which they play the heroes. For instance, the New York Islanders were shunned by John Tavares in free agency in 2018 but managed to hire Barry Trotz as their new head coach, who was in turn shunned by the Washington Capitals after winning them the Stanley Cup. Wouldn’t it be something for New York to lift the Cup themselves just two years later?
And of course who could forget the Tampa Bay Lightning, who tied the record for most wins in NHL history last season but were then swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets? They responded this season by dispatching the Blue Jackets, the reigning Eastern Conference Champions in the Boston Bruins, and now potentially the Islanders. In a similar vein to the 2018-19 Virginia Cavaliers Men’s Basketball team, a Stanley Cup this year feels inevitable for the Lightning.
Both would be formidable foes for Dallas, although most would agree that Tampa Bay is a much better team. That will lead many Stars fans to root for New York to complete their comeback, giving Dallas the “easier” matchup and thus the best chance to win it all.
But not me. I want the Lightning to advance. I want to watch Dallas to face off against arguably the best team in the NHL. Yes, the Stars would be the clear underdogs, David facing off against Goliath. But wasn’t that already the case against the Avalanche? The Golden Knights? If Dallas could beat those teams, why not the Lightning?
In recent years, there have been more and more people taking up the argument that the best team doesn’t always win the Stanley Cup, thanks to the playoff format, hot goaltending streaks, and flat out randomness. I don’t necessarily disagree with the stance — and also believe that the best team not winning isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but it does lead to people taking things a step too far. Namely, the argument that teams like Dallas are actually not good and don’t deserve to win the Cup over “better” teams:
The Stars are maybe the 7th best team in the playoffs. And I think that's being nice. Playoff hockey am I right?— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) September 15, 2020
To such detractors, I offer this counter-argument: if you were to list the top Stanley Cup Contenders heading into the first round of the playoffs, you would probably name Vegas, Colorado, and Tampa Bay at the top of that list, alongside most likely the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins.
Dallas already beat Colorado head-to-head in seven games. Against Vegas, it only took them five. If you were to add Tampa Bay to that list, then how could you reasonably argue that the Stars weren’t the best team? It’s not as if the Stars would have lucked out by avoiding some better team — the Blues looked lifeless in the playoffs, bowing out to the Vancouver Canucks in Round 1, while the Bruins were clearly outmatched by the Lightning in Round 2.
And honestly, even if the Lightning don’t advance and the Stars were to beat the Islanders instead to lift the Cup, does it really matter? Anyone arguing that the Lightning were “more deserving” of a cup than Dallas after blowing a 3-1 series lead to New York would be simply grasping at straws.
Of course, critics could use other means to try and discredit the Stars. They could go back to the “these playoffs don’t really count” argument because of the season stoppage, the untraditional playoff format, the NHL Bubble environment, etc. I mean, such factors would lead me to believe that this Stanley Cup is actually harder to believe than normal, but hey, I’m not a fan bitter about my team getting knocked out in the play-ins or by a Finnish rookie I’ve never heard of before.
Then again, I don’t really care what other fans think. If the Stars win the Stanley Cup, I’m going to love every second of it and simply drown out the background noise. People can whine all they want — at the end of the day, it wouldn’t change the fact that Jamie Benn would get to pass off the Cup to Joe Pavelski and that Jake Oettinger would get his name etched in silver for simply dressing as a backup in the Finals.
Besides, knowing there would be so many complaints against a Stars championship makes it seem all but inevitable. After all, Dallas already has one fake asterisk attached to a Stanley Cup — why not make it two?