It’s Time to Live and Die Together, Again

It was nice knowing you

The Stanley Cup Playoffs will kill you a thousand times, and you’ll keep coming back for more.

You know this. You’ve suffered, screamed and sobbed after a heartbreak of a playoff game, or series. Most of us have. Every bit of buildup to the playoffs, from the first preseason game to the home opener to the night your team’s all just getting you warmed up for pain more real than anything you’ve felt so far.

Stars fans know this at least as well as any other fanbase, and better than some. They’ve watched their team lead the league in offense and defense, and they’ve seen their fortunes fail just the same. There is no magic formula, no silver bullet that you can pretend they have. The truth is, they’re probably going to break your heart. Most teams do.

It’s hard to capture the emptiness of a bad loss. Can you answer the question, “What does it feel like to lose after playing almost seven periods of hockey?” I’ve watched a couple of four-overtime Stars games, and I still don’t know how to fully articulate what goes on. It’s like all the drama of asking someone out on a first date combined with the intensity of a breakup fight. It’s three hours (or more) of fear and hope, but mostly fear.

Today is already tense. You can feel it, right? You have the hours planned out, your schedule cleared to give you the time you’ll need in front of the television. But it’s not watching television, not really. Watching television carries some intrinsic separation, while playoff hockey feels more like seeing your children play tag on the edge of an empty swimming pool. They are laughing, enjoying themselves, but you can never really pretend that the chasm isn’t there. Terror and delight are inescapably linked.

Other sports are different in the ways they torment you. Football has a built-in mechanism for taking turns, and turnovers are rare enough to help you at least relax a tiny bit when your team is on offense. The pain of a bad football loss is acute, but it’s delivered like a long toss. You still live and die with each snap, but you have the on/off switch there to be flipped every few seconds. Baseball, even moreso. And basketball, for all of its potential, just doesn’t have the same explosive significance of a home run, a touchdown, or a goal. In hockey, you’re revved up constantly, always as tense as the players have to be to keep their momentum going. If your team has the puck, you’re terrified that they might give it away. If they don’t, you’re terrified that they might surrender a shot. When the shots come, as they always do, you almost go numb for a second, pretending that you won’t be shattered if the puck finds its way into the net. You live in constant denial that these events affect you, a denial laughably belied by your every movement. Affected languor does nothing to quell the thrash metal concert going on in your throat every time the puck approaches the defensive zone. Disaster is so infinitely worse when it’s coy about arriving.

It’s overtime, I suppose. That’s the easiest thing to point to. The rules change in the playoffs, and teams have to deal with it. Players are pushed to places they haven’t gone before, sometimes taking IV fluids in intermission just to keep going. Overtime is cruel to the body, the mind, and our hearts. Sometimes, all at once.

This Nashville series will become the Nashville series when everything’s over with. You have no idea how much you will hate (and admire) some of the players over there, although you could probably venture a guess or two.

There are plenty of matchup analysis articles out there. Some folks have picked Dallas, while others have picked Nashville. It should be a pretty good series, from what we can tell. But you know as well as anyone that there’s no telling just how a series will shape up until it begins to take shape. Did Trevor Daley seem like a player who would score some huge goals in a crushing loss to Anaheim in that fateful game six? We don’t remember him enough, although we’ll never forget those goals, either.

I watched that second Daley goal (at 5:54) on a Red Robin television. I was elated, but because I was out for a birthday dinner with a couple of decidedly not-hockey-fans, my jubilation was suppressed. That whole series had felt like Dallas was skating uphill, even after evening it up at home. Anaheim was a good team, and it was all the Stars could do, as the eighth seed, to throw some punches back.

After Red Robin, I got home, and had a text message from a friend in Anaheim that caught me unawares, spoiling my plans to watch the rest of the game I had recorded. They had lost, in overtime, after being up 4-2 with just minutes to go. Just like that, the Stars were done.

But I bet you also forgot that the Stars hit a post in that overtime, too. Even after all of that, Dallas still threw a sneaky punch back, and almost landed it. Hockey is cruel, and all the more so because of how generous it can be. Pulling out of that tailspin would have been disorienting, but all the more wonderful because of its undeservedness. Ah, we can dream.

Banners hang forever, but the memories keep us hanging on. You remember Cinco de Morrow, the Arnott dagger, and so, so much about 1999. You remember Colorado breaking Dallas hearts with 4-1 series wins two years in a row. You remember how Jason Demers almost accidentally caused a game seven before the infamous Kari Lehtonen meltdown in the actual game seven. You remember, and still despise, Bryan Marchment. Petr Sykora ruined the rest of the summer after both teams had already ruined your night.

The Nashville series is here, and you don’t know what it will bring. Our bodies are inscribed with the scars of lives lived, and the collective body of Stars fans knows its scars far too well. If you’re old enough, you remember Minnesota running into the 1981 New York Islanders at the top of the mountain, or Pittsburgh humbling them after a storybook run to the Final. Or perhaps you just remember incredibly prosaic details, like how Dallas and St. Louis both went 2-for-7 on the power play in the Dallas Stars’ first-ever playoff game after leaving Minnesota. Or how Joel Lundqvist scored a firecracker of an opening goal in the Stars’ game seven against Vancouver 12 years ago.

In the last decade, you have seen the Stars win nine playoff games and lose ten. This is their third playoff season in the last six years. Coin flips are everywhere, and that seems wrong. You want the universe to lean in your direction, to give you reasons for optimism.

That’s why we read those previews, I think. We want to avoid overexposing ourselves. Children expect their team to win every game until the team loses. And Washington Capitals fans always expected their team to lose, until they finally won it all, last year. We hope against hope, and we fear our own courage to continue hoping.

That’s what you sign up for. Along with the improbable ecstasy of Mattias Norström overtime goals, you also get stupid bounces. Heroes and goats often end up being the players you didn’t spend much time talking about before things got started.

Maybe, in the end, the Stanley Cup Playoffs just reflect our lives back at us. We know there will be heartbreak, but we’re still desperate for a reason to get up in the morning. We know it’s not likely that everything today will go our way, but we’re always willing to hope, if only a little, that something special might happen. You never know. You really never do.

Soon, we will know. And we’ll hate every agonizing minute of loving it, because we always do. If we paused to reflect, we’d realize what’s been true all along: that the agony of watching our favorite team isn’t a paradox, but our very reason for watching. Feeling the way you feel right now is the same terrifying exhilaration that waits atop a roller coaster. After crawling upwards for 82 games, the plunge is about to begin. You will scream in fear, and you will know that you are alive even as you die a little more every second. That’s life.

See you tonight.