On Friday afternoon, the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche will duke it out in a winner-or-go-home Game 7. But while a trip to the Western Conference Finals is on the table, this game means a lot more to the Stars’ franchise as a whole. It’s a chance to outdo history, clear a burdening hurdle, and prove their legitimacy.
It’s been 51 weeks since the Dallas Stars opened 2019 training camp in Frisco. In addition to getting familiar with new faces like Joe Pavelski and Andrej Sekera on the ice and providing updates on the statuses of players like Corey Perry, Julius Honka, and Stephen Johns, one of the primary themes of camp centered around unfinished business.
How could it not?
Four months prior, the Stars had taken the St. Louis Blues to a deciding Game 7 in the second round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With a veteran group and first-year head coach Jim Montgomery, the Stars had put together an impressive run through the 2018-10 season and had the opportunity to punch their ticket to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2008.
But Dallas ended up one goal short as Patrick Maroon scored the game-winner in double overtime to push the Blues to the final four and force an impressive Stars team into an offseason that felt entirely too premature.
The opportunity was there, but for the second consecutive playoff run (joining the 2016 postseason), the Stars couldn’t find a way past the Blues in a winner-take-all scenario.
At training camp in 2019, a few of the players were asked about if they had watched much of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after getting eliminated in the second round. The answers were about what you’d expect from a team that fell one win short of knocking out the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
“No, probably not even a whole game,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “Maybe one period. When you’re not in it, you kind of lose interest. It sucks when you find out that the team that knocked you out won the Cup.”
“This is the first year that I didn’t watch much playoff hockey and the big reason was that St. Louis kept moving on,” Blake Comeau added. “I kept tabs on what was going on, but I didn’t watch any games. It was a little bit of a frustrated feeling this summer and a little bit of anger, so I didn’t watch a lot of playoffs. I was excited to get back to Dallas and get going.”
Those answers added fuel to the idea that the Stars were focused on a mission to clear the hurdle that had bested them in each of their previous two trips to the playoffs.
51 weeks later, the Dallas Stars have arrived at yet another chance to complete that mission. This time around, however, the opportunity comes against the Colorado Avalanche.
After six games of goals upon goals (48, to be exact), costly errors, unfortunate injuries, unlikely heroes, and momentum swings by the period, the Stars and Avalanche find themselves in a 3-3 series tie. In their three wins, the Stars dominated and looked like a team destined for a berth in the Western Conference Finals. In the previous two games, however, Dallas has struggled to keep up with Colorado and committed costly errors that ultimately wiped away a 3-1 advantage in the series.
And now, the second round series rests on a win-or-go-home Game 7 scheduled for 3 p.m. CT on Friday afternoon on USA Network.
Odd timing and broadcast decisions aside, the magnitude of this game rings true. Win, and you buy yourself both another week in the bubble in Edmonton and a legitimate chance at a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Lose, and you’re heading back home on Saturday thinking about what could have been.
It’s a rather simple concept when you think about it. But for the Dallas Stars, there’s a lot more to it.
“We hope we stay in the moment and we hope we don’t look too far ahead. The discussion has been ongoing for a long time and now we’re at that moment. It’s up to us to be able to handle that and not look ahead, not get nervous, and handle the situation in front of us.” – Rick Bowness on Game 7
This Game 7 is a chance to look history in the face and outdo it for a change. It’s a chance for Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, Mattias Janmark, and Radek Faksa (the five players that have been with the Stars for each of the past two trips to the second round) to overcome a hurdle that’s been on their mind for four years. It’s a chance for this Stars team to live up to the “win now” label that has been stamped on them for the past few seasons.
Win or lose, this game provides a fork in the road for the Dallas Stars franchise. It’s a defining moment that will be pointed to in the years to come as a pivotal point in this team’s history.
“We’re looking forward to [Friday],” Benn said. “Obviously, we put ourselves in this spot to play a Game 7. We have to look forward to it. This is what hockey is all about. It’s a best-of-seven, one game, winner take all. It’s a really exciting time for our team.”
This is Benn’s fourth time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since making his NHL debut in 2009. He’s been the captain in all four appearances, but has yet to get past Game 7 of the second round.
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How much of his legacy as a captain and one of the franchise’s best players weighs on his performance and the results on Friday afternoon? After being blindsided by the Blues in a 6-1 loss in 2016 and falling short in a 2-1 loss in 2019, does he have the drive and juice necessary to be the difference maker Dallas needs in the biggest Game 7 of his career?
“We all know what happened last year and the guys that have been here for a while [know],” Benn said. “We’ve had some trouble with St. Louis in the past, and here we are again in a Game 7. What a great opportunity to break through [on Friday], get a win, and move on.”
And what about the rest of the club? Can the top line get back in gear and turn the tide of Game 7 like they did in Games 1, 2, and 4? Will Miro Heiskanen or Denis Gurianov play the role of hero in the biggest game of their early NHL careers? Can Anton Khudobin power the Stars through to a win in his first Game 7? And what of the Stars’ depth? Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry have been in this situation seven times before and were brought in to help the Stars in big moments like this.
All are viable storylines to follow, and the Avalanche have their own set of possible themes.
That’s part of the magic and unpredictability that comes with a Game 7. It’s the reason that players earn the nickname “Mr. Game 7” and these games are talked about for years. They offer the most prominent stage for greatness to shine.
“These are the opportunities where you can step up and push your career to another level,” Stars interim coach Rick Bowness said. “You get into these Game 7s and you come up big and your team moves on, it enhances your career. It’s what we’ve been talking about. Getting by this is hard.
“You need to want to be on the ice and want to be a factor in the outcome of the game in a positive way. Don’t shy away from it. It’s when you have to face yourself as a man and as a professional that, ‘Okay, it’s Game 7 and I can handle this challenge internally. I’m going to want to be on the ice and be a difference maker.’ That’s the approach we have to have.”
History has the Dallas Stars at 2-4 overall in Game 7s. And while they have lost their past three (2007, 2016, and 2019), both of their wins came against the Avalanche in 1999 and 2000.
But there’s no time to rest on positive history or worry about negative history. This is a time for the Dallas Stars to outdo history, clear a burdening hurdle, and prove that they are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. After seven years of building for that title, it’s time to embrace it or face the consequences of another journey ended too quickly.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Pavelski said. “It’s about raising our game to another level. Give credit to Colorado for pushing it this far in the series. They’ve done some good things in the series and we’ve done some really good things in the series. Now, we’ve got to put our best game out there.”
The Stars know what’s on the line in today’s game. From the captain that has been through an 11-year rollercoaster with the franchise, to the rookie that led the team in goal-scoring during the regular season and currently in the postseason, there’s a lot more at stake for this team than just a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
This is a chance to embrace and defeat adversity once again. After dealing with a 1-7-1 start, the firing of a head coach, the spectacle of a Winter Classic, an impressive February, a near collapse in March, a pandemic, and a 15-game journey through the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Stars have reached a significant pivot point and defining moment for the current era.
History will be made on Friday afternoon, and the Dallas Stars need to make sure that they are on the right side of it.
“This group wants to move on,” Pavelski said. “We believe there’s a lot of hockey left for us.”