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Afterwords: The First Joel and the Last 12 Years

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For the First Time in Defending Big D’s History, the Stars Are Back in the Western Conference Finals

Dallas Stars v Colorado Avalanche - Game Seven Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

But our fears

Their fears

Their children’s fears

Our kids

Their kids

Their children’s kids

Will see a sudden light

***

In May of 2008, I was finishing my senior year of college. The grim spectre of graduating with a journalism degree and no real job prospects had grown even more terrifying than usual in the midst of the Great Recession and the housing market’s collapse.

During the Stars’ playoff run that spring, I’d had the good fortune of attending a couple of victories over Anaheim in the first round. In that series in particular, the Stars’ power play was massive, and they made Anaheim pay for taking too many penalties, as everyone from Loui Eriksson to Sergei Zubov was out for blood after getting bounced in seven games by Vancouver the year prior.

Anyway, that May was weird for me. I’d just gotten out of a short rebound relationship after getting my heart stomped on shortly before, and I had commemorated the end of said rebound by rebounding (and totaling) my Honda Civic on my way to work. I ended up walking the couple miles to and from campus at least twice during my final semester, which was a humbling experience among humbling experiences.

But if you remember that game against San Jose, then you remember the last time the Stars won a Conference Semifinal game in overtime. You remember how, like in this one, the game was always within a goal. You remember how both teams had chances to win it, and how both goalies had incredible saves.

I’m not saying Michael Hutchinson’s glove save on Pavelski was Nabokov on Richards any more than Khudobin’s on Kadri was Turco on Marleau. But that game is hardwired into Stars fans of a certain age such that you can’t not feel just a tinge of that same elation, that same terror, when the stakes get that high.

I watched Cinco de Morrow in the dead of night in my brother’s apartment, with his Bay Area roommate joining us for what ended up being his own disappointment. I think victory is so thrilling because you know it could have gone wrong, because you know just how close—in hockey in particular—a losing goal can be, at any given moment.

So as this game seven wore on, I found myself thinking, as I told my brother on the phone afterwards, that I was grateful, no matter the outcome, that we at least had a proper game seven. No first period stinker like 2016, and no impotent struggle towards impossible victory like in 2019. This game was, however it had gotten here, a game. Just feeling something this strongly in 2020 about something as trivial as sports is a gift, even if our hearts might get broken once again.

I’d like to think that means I’ve built some foundation of sanguinity, but it probably just means I’m protecting myself more than I knew how to do in 2008. And that might mean that I’ve lowered my ceiling of joy to match my higher floor of despair, but I dunno. After watching The Great Joel Kiviranta win yet another game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche, I discovered I can still feel quite a bit.

***

Last year, the internal mantra from the Stars, as Sean Shapiro has said multiple times, was that if Jamie Oleksiak had been healthy, the Stars would have beaten St. Louis to advance to the Conference Finals.

This year, Jamie Oleksiak had an outstanding series against Calgary, scoring a huge goal in the final minute of play to grab a win in addition to playing heavy minutes alongside Heiskanen. But against Colorado in game seven, he was very nearly the biggest reason the Stars didn’t advance—until he ended up assisting the game-winning goal.

Oleksiak had one of his Oleksiak Classic™ decisions to give the Avs the lead, as he tried to exit the zone with the sort of play some fans assume Klingberg makes all the time, and handed the puck to Andre Burakovsky at the blue line, who quickly skated in on Sekera (who probably didn’t have time to gap up properly) and ripped a shot past Khudobin’s ear before you could say “size wins games.”

His second moment came right after the Stars had tied it back up at two goals apiece, when he pushed up at the blue line in a misguided sort of forecheck/pinch after the Avalanche had regained the puck in their own zone. This resulted in Heiskanen, who was covering his man, suddenly realizing that he was the last man back, and that Matt Nieto was very much wide open on the other side of the ice to receive a pass from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who found him with ease.

The final moment was more like bad luck, as Oleksiak ended up poking the puck into his own goaltender on the penalty kill in an effort to prevent a rebound chance. The puck bounced off Khudobin’s pad and right to Nazem Kadri, who easily stashed the rebound to regain the lead for Colorado.

In a way, it couldn’t have been more fitting that Sekera and Oleksiak combined to run a mesmerizing bit of offensive zone dominance before Kiviranta’s winner. Sekera was extremely dependable against Colorado, while he struggled mightily against Calgary. And Oleksiak, while he had some good games in this series, certainly had a rought night in the seventh game. But the great thing about sports is the chance for redemption, and Oleksiak, like the rest of Jamie Benn’s team, found a way to find it.

***

The power play and the penalty kill were each outstanding, no two ways about it. The Stars scored nine power play goals to Colorado’s four, despite the fact that the Avs had 34 power plays to Dallas’s 24. That’s a solid ten more minutes of power play time, and while officials missed calls in both directions at times, the Avs also drew the most power plays of any team in the regular season, so I don’t think the officiating deserves too much grief, all things considered. As we’ve said, the Stars pretty much deserved every penalty they got called for in game six, and many of the ones in game five, too.

And yet, the Stars’ PK defused one of the NHL’s most lethal offenses time and time again, getting stronger as the series wore on. Joe Pavelski and Mattias Janmark both had 16 minutes of 4v5 time on ice, and they saw zero goals against. Dickinson and Faksa were on the ice for only a single goal against. Only Blake Comeau, of all the forwards, was on the ice for more than one goal against at 4v5. And Comeau, lest we forget, also scored two goals at evens in this series, just one off the team lead (Radulov and Kiviranta, at 3).

The power play, by the way, deserves equal credit. Radek Faksa scored two huge goals on the job, and Radulov scored two of his own—both of which came in game seven. The Stars have the hottest power play in the playoffs, and it came up huge for them against a Colorado team that looked downright fearsome heading into this series. You may remember that basically the whole world picked Colorado to win this series.

And before we leave the power play, don’t forget about Joel Kiviranta’s deflection on a delayed penalty, either. It doesn’t show up as a power play goal, but it was still a gutsy effort to fight off a stickless Kevin Connauton long enough to keep a stick on the ice and deflect the puck in.

And and and...John Klingberg. John. Klingberg.

I’m not sure what part of this I love more: Klingberg’s filthy, lying hips that send Nieto east when he goes west, or Klingberg’s jubilant hop at the end of the clip. We do not have to choose favorites all the time.

For Dallas in this series, Special Team were.

***

We were all wondering who would show up in game seven, and the answer, it turns out, was a whole lot of people. Radulov had his customary penalty in the third period, when the Stars could ill afford to give up another goal, but Radulov also scored a power play goal shortly thereafter. Radulov was huge in game seven, which is what you ask of your high-paid offensive weapons.

Joe Pavelski was a force against Calgary, but he scored just two goals against Colorado. Then again, seven different Stars scored two goals against Colorado. Scoring was so spread out that you probably don’t know that Jamie Benn and Miro Heiskanen ended the series tied for the team lead in scoring, or that Benn and Gurianov both led the team in primary assists, with four.

That was Jamie Benn’s game seven, in a way. He showed up, even if he didn’t win the game singlehandedly. Playing primarily in Andrew Cogliano’s place, he led the FCB line in the most minutes matched up against the MacKinnon line. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the first game in roughly 47 years in which Nathan MacKinnon did not find the scoresheet. Benn was skating, he was fearsome in his puck battles, and he has now led his team to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in his career. If this game was going to define Benn’s legacy, I think it’s fair to call this one a positive mark in the ledger.

On the other side, Colorado were without their captain, as Gabriel Landeskog missed the game after an unfortunate cut by the skate of Cale Makar in game six. No two ways about it: Colorado were ravaged by injuries, as they lost Erik Johnson (who surely would have had something to say about those Dallas power plays) and about six other name-brand players of one sort or another throughout this series.

But as any Stars fan who remembers Seguin’s unfortunate absence in 2016 will note, you have to play the series you’re given. And Dallas was missing its own bunch of dudes, as both Taylor Fedun and Andrew Cogliano—two important defensive presences—couldn’t go, which means something pretty damned serious, in a game seven.

The big difference in this series, for all the injuries, should have been the goaltending. I’m not really sure it was, though. Both teams were missing their top goalie for six of the seven games, and they each lost the game in which he played.

Michael Hutchinson is certainly no Anton Khudobin, sure; but Dallas also showed that they aren’t a guarantee to force a goalie to be that good, as games five and six clearly demonstrated. The Stars surrendered 29 goals in seven games, which is a 4.25 GAA. Four of those are on Ben Bishop, but uh, yeah. This was not last year’s team, in any sense.

Rick Bowness is also not Jim Montgomery. Dealing with a couple of big injuries, he faced a game seven in which he had to insert Joels Hanley and Kiviranta for their first playoff games of the year. He responded by dispersing Benn, Seguin, and Radulov among three different lines, and tossing Gurianov and Hintz together with the new Finnish kid. It worked.

Look, Vegas is still the best team in the West. That’s how the playoffs work, usually. You face better teams as you win more games. But the Stars have proven they can score lots of goals, and they’ve proven they can play a few different kinds of games. Anything can happen in hockey, as Thatcher Demko reminded us all last night. Rick Bowness probably isn’t the next Scotty Bowman, but he has learned a thing or two this year, I think. And the playoffs become such an emotional, draining thing at the best of times—let alone when you’re playing seven games in twelve days cordoned off in a tiny slice of Edmonton for two months. Maybe the Stars just needed someone to help them believe in themselves, to keep them from getting too down even after bad losses and ugly plays, and four goals against on a nightly basis.

Because man, this game could’ve easily spiraled after that second Colorado goal. But Dallas kept clawing back. They scored three goals during the only three times they had an extra skater on the ice, and they never let Colorado get a two-goal lead. Miro Heiskanen continues to quietly dominate the game, and he is finally, finally, beginning to be recognized for it. After all, I don’t think NBC has any higher praise available than the phrase, “Heiskanen is one of the only players who can skate with MacKinnon.”

The beautiful, wonderful, glorious moment of this game might have come in regulation. That’s absurd, I know, but overtime is such a bonkers bonanza of luck, and anyway I hardly had the capacity for human emotion by the time Sekera channeled Wayne Gretzky right before Kiviranta tied Gretzky’s record. Nah, the real moment where I felt called to believe in this team, in this game, was right after a failed Pavelski clear ended up in the Stars’ net to put the Avs up 4-3 with only a few minutes remaining. It felt cruel, if not quite as cruel as in past years, but somehow fitting. The momentum had been in Colorado’s favor since game five, and this was what Stars’ playoff games usually end up like, right?

Well, it turns out that Colorado, in capitalizing off of Toronto’s post-playoffs bitterness by trading for Nazem Kadri, also got some of the misfortune along with him. Immediately off the ensuing faceoff, Kadri lost the puck in his skates—it may have been nicked by Ryan Graves’s skate—and a 3-on-2 was handed to Heiskanen and the Stars before the fake crowd had even stopped cheering for the Colorado goal.

A couple things here: First, credit to Bowness for putting that kid line out there late in the game after going down a goal. Second, think about the fact that Heiskanen was the one to collect the puck, the furthest-forward Stars player. That may have been the result of a set faceoff play, or perhaps Heiskanen just knows he can jump up into the play at almost any time and easily recover. Either way, he carpe’d the ding-danged diem outta this play, and the resulting 3-on-2 say Joel Kiviranta calmly make this shot look like filling out a form:

That moment really was The Moment, for me. The first time since game five when I sincerely believed the Stars were going to win the series.

Joe Pavelski almost found an impossibly dramatic game-winner at the end of regulation, only to have Michael Hutchinson’s glove hand save the game for Colorado. I think that would have been almost too much, really; I mean, come on, this isn’t a family-friendly sports movie, okay?

No, the most fitting way for the Stars to advance to the Conference Finals for the first time since Mattias Norstrom was scoring overtime goals was, of course, for the deepest of their depth to beat the Avs’ third-string goaltender. For Andrej Sekera to be setting up goals from behind the net. For Jamie Oleksiak to recover from some hiccups earlier in the game to run a slick offensive run of puck possession, rag-dolling a Colorado team into a straight-legged state where Joel Kiviranta could get miles of separation from Nazem Kadri, himself the Avs’ answer to questions about their own depth after last year’s seminfinals defeat.

You can’t make this stuff up, and I’m not sure anyone would want to. But being a Dallas Stars fan is a membership to a very unique sort of club. It’s equal parts self-deprecation, lamentation, and fantasy. And once in a great while, the fantasy comes true. Or at least, a fantasy. Namely, Joel Kiviranta’s, and basically nobody else’s, before this game.

Dallas Stars fans have spent the last few years trying to squint enough to buy in to a drastic shift in team philosophy, and it’s been a hard sell, given how the last couple seasons ended. But sometimes the best advertising isn’t a brand overhaul, but just a slight tweak of the label, a minor ingredient swap. Joel Kiviranta’s game seven hat trick is proof of all your hockey truisms, or none of them.

After 12 years, I think Dallas Stars fans have earned a lot of criticism and credit. But for one day after a dozen years, I’m going to enjoy this. I’m going to enjoy the half-baked Joel Kiviranta t-shirts, the sour grapes from Avalanche fans, the begrudging congratulations from other Avs fans, and the insufficiency from the national media as they try to make sense of why the Dallas Stars, The Dallas Stars, are eight wins from the Stanley Cup, thanks to scoring four goals a game. On paper, it makes about as much sense as a Joel Kiviranta hat trick. On ice, it makes a beautiful gift. I hope you’ve enjoyed unwrapping the last eight wins as much as I have.