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Expectations and Hope: What Makes the Dallas Stars “For Real”

In October, we knew a few things about this team. Most painfully, we knew the Stars had not been a top-tier NHL squad for a decade. Even that 2008 Western Conference Finals run, you will recall, found the Stars playing every playoff series without home-ice advantage. They had a nice season that included the Brad Richards trade (remember those five assists in his first game?), and that run probably created a lot of the fans that watch the team today. But even so, they were thrice the series underdog, and they would fall at the hands of the eventual Cup champs. As of October, it has been a long time since Dallas was a favorite.

At the end of December, we knew a few more things about this team. We knew that they could–and had–beat any of the top teams in the league. We knew that the goaltenders were not going to turn into Henrik Lundqvist, but we also knew that the Stars could succeed in spite of that with simply #averagegoaltending. We knew that this team could score goals at will and sustain that scoring, even if they weren’t strangling the other team’s offense in the process.

By mid-March, we knew even more. Unfortunately for the fans, the last couple of months had been a bit too much of a “how the sausage is made” experience for anyone to get their tail too high in the air. We knew that Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen were both capable of prolonged slumps, and ditto that (to a lesser extent) for Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. We also found out, however, that the Stars can often compensate for the latter pair’s absence with a white-hot Jason Spezza and friends. We knew that this team could beat Chicago and scrap with St. Louis even with half their defense on the shelf. That was pretty remarkable, if a bit unsettling to watch at times.

But back in November, when the Stars were still on pace for a franchise-best point total, something bothered me. Back when the goaltending was mostly average, but the goal-scoring and shot-generation were at the top of the NHL (as they still are), a voice whispered at the back of the mind:

Is this for real?

In December, I made a decision. It came from the same place that dictates most of my preseason predictions, actually, which is to say the fun-loving, swashbuckling cranial crevice that sabotages personal relationships for the sake of a laugh or two. (Note to self: getting too dark here.) So, I decided to look at my expectations, weigh all the factors that go into them, and decide which ones were most important. Then I decided to throw them all out the window.

We’ve never seen a Stars team like this, not really. Sure, it’s been building to a crescendo since Lindy Ruff (and Tyler Seguin, and Jim Nill) came aboard, but this was the first year in which you could see a path to the Cup for this team. Sure, that path was hardly the 2013 Blackhawks‘ Carpool Lane at Rush Hour, blowing by all those poor, lonely saps stuck in traffic. Rather, it looked more like a trek through the (spoiler alert) orc-infested Mines of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. [Aside: Talk about high-danger chances against, yuk yuk yuk!] It was possible, and you even had some reasons to hope it could happen, but it was the furthest thing from a certainty.

Still, with only a couple of games to go, the Stars have emerged into glorious sunlight after a beautiful stretch of .700 hockey, and they did so with their Legolas (the dreamy blond dude with the ears) on the shelf due to an actual Achilles injury. They showed spunk, consarn it, and I have it on good authority that spunk is an important thing for a Stanley Cup contender. (Also, scoring goals, it turns out.) This year has been a road trip without the destination clearly charted. We’d known the Stars were planning a cool journey sometime soon-ish, but most of us hadn’t dared to think they’d go this far quite yet.

You may have started wagging your finger and ah-ah-ah-ing right there, and I get it. There are myriad objections to labeling the Stars as a legitimate Cup team, and some of those objections are good ones. You know how vital goaltending and defense are in a goal-starved league, and you know that the last few teams to the win the cup have done so with hot goaltending and/or juggernaut top-pairs on defense. Chara, Doughty, Keith and Hjalmarsson are household names for a reason, and even the once-maligned Corey Crawford is suddenly looking like a goalie of goalies after a couple Cups and a season of lights-out backstopping (which I typed before remembering that he’s dealing with a concussion, so please don’t accuse me of being sophomoric). Simple team breakdowns going into the playoffs usually focus on four areas: goaltending, forwards, defense, and special teams. Dallas can only boast in 2 (or 1.5) of those areas right now. If that’s what’s really under the hood of this rebuilt RV, it’s not unreasonable to be skeptical about how much further it can take you.

So, again: is this for real?

Goals are the exception to a team’s plans. Everything centers around preventing/creating chances around the net, minimizing/getting to rebounds, and transitioning through/clogging up the neutral zone. Goals are rare enough to be only ever an welcome consequence of those plans, not the expectation. Coaches usually don’t tell their players, “hey, go score a goal.” (Well, good coaches probably don’t, at least.) They give them the preliminary instructions and suggestions along with pithy reminders (“pucks deep,” “take his eyes away”) and trust that the outcome will, at intervals, make those instructions justifiably repeatable. If the players do A and B well and often enough, C will, not wholly randomly, follow.

Dallas, more than any other team, has made goals a regular occurrence. That’s weird and disconcerting, largely because a 4-3 victory feels miles less dominant than a 2-0 victory with an empty-netter. Three goals against is a lot of trauma to endure, and especially so when they come off preventable breakdowns or giveaways. Undergoing the silent despair accompanied by sparse (or not so sparse) cheers of enemy fans in your arena is tough, and it leaves a mark on the sports consciousness. In some cases, it leaves a Chicago-sized scar.

Certainly the goaltending and special teams disappeared in January and February. The Stars clung to the top of their conference as their lead shrank and shrank, and that ride eventually KO’d most of that autumn euphoria. The Stars were the dreamy, classy boyfriend for a few months in the fall, and then you walked in on them wolfing down a quesarito and making flatulence jokes with their dumb friends. That image of half-chewed whatsit spraying from their teeth doesn’t mean they aren’t the same person who took you to see the Russian National Orchestra in December; it just shows that they’re a bit more human than your earlier perceptions would have suggested. Then suddenly it’s April, and they gave you a birthday gift they’d been working on diligently over the past month or so: 105 points with two games to play.

Is it for real? Well, I guess that depends on you.

If by “real” you mean “they will win the Stanley Cup for very much positives definitely,” then I don’t know. Probably not, statistically speaking. Even the hottest team won’t go into the playoffs with much better than 20% odds, and right now the hottest teams look to be in the East.

But if “for real” means “can they win the Stanley Cup,” then absolutely they can! They sure could not last year! In 2014, we weren’t sure they would even have a lottery ticket chance until game 81, and for too many years before that, they also most definitely could not.

Both in success and in style of play, these are Not Your Grandfather’s Dallas Stars. Gone are the days of golden goalie mantles and Jennings Trophy aspirations being passed along with capable backups waiting their turn or being too far back in line and leaving to start elsewhere. Gone are the games of tight defense, low scores, few or no prospects to be excited about, and aging legends well-regarded but fighting to stay healthy and productive together.

Really, this team is almost too real. The risk/reward ratio can cut both ways, as when Patrick Sharp and John Klingberg made deadly errors against Anaheim. The goaltending has been almost literally “good enough” as opposed to “great,” and that means wracked nerves and gnawed nails. The thrilling comebacks have been counterbalanced with some shameful losses, and our joy at the breakouts of Mattias Janmark and Radek Faksa is sobered by the injuries that opened spots for other kids behind them. This year’s Dallas Stars are a virtual reality game with 12,000-volt sensory feedback. Surprise! You thought you were just watching a game but now you are in the hospital, and you’re not sure why you’re happy about that.

I’ll be crushed if the Stars don’t go all the way, but I don’t want to miss the goofballish and unexpected gift that this season has been. Even during the dark days of winter, Dallas could still look down its nose at the teams fighting for wild card spots and chuckle. (“Oh, right. We remember what that was like. Gross.”)

After a year of underperforming to the tune of a golf-themed April, the Stars gave us a reason to happily check the standings every day. This has been the happiest March in a long, long time, and even though it hasn’t been a victory lap as such, it’s at least been a chance to turn to the stadium camera and smile as you run past it. Such luxuries are precious in this league, but this season has been one of unforeseen abundance, even if that red-light liberality has gone both ways. If the ends really do justify the means, then Dallas chose the most wonderful and entertaining means imaginable: More Goals. That’s unnerving and probably always will be, but this team team has hung with the best in the West all year long. Now seems like as good a time as any to exhale, take a step back, and smile. The playoffs are coming, but for the first time in far too long, that isn’t much of a surprise.

Talking Points