After crafting a regular season and playoff run for the history book and movie screen, the Dallas Stars’ push for the Stanley Cup ended on Monday night. And while the disappointing result will sting, the journey itself was a memorable and inspirational one that generated promise for the future.
The Dallas Stars should be preparing for opening night of their 2020-21 regular season right now.
Instead, they spent Tuesday afternoon flying to Dallas (or to their homes in Canada) from the NHL bubble in Edmonton after writing a storybook playoff run that ended with an unfortunate chapter over the course of their 66-day stay.
That’s still baffling to think about.
On Monday night, the Stars saw one of the wackiest and most thrilling seasons in the history of the franchise end on a disappointing note. After piecing together a postseason run that began with shakiness and uncertainty but was followed by a powerful and unexpected surge, Dallas was finally ousted as the Tampa Bay Lightning won Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final to secure the title.
With key role players missing from the lineup due to various injuries, a dialed-in response from the Lightning after a double overtime loss to Dallas in Game 5 on Saturday, and a lack of consistent offensive pressure, the Stars finally fell for the fourth time in a given playoff series and dropped by a score of 2-0.
Just like that, an improbable Dallas Stars postseason run built on defying the odds, heroic stories, and larger-than-life moments was wrapped just short of the ultimate goal.
It’s likely still a touchy subject, and that’s okay. It’s supposed to be. That’s how sports work. Don’t forget that all but one team finishes the year on a disappointing note.
But when it’s all said and done and the glitter fades, this Stars team won’t, or at the very least shouldn’t, be remembered for falling short of their first Stanley Cup in 21 years. They shouldn’t be recounted for running out of gas when their season was on the line.
No, this Dallas Stars team shouldn’t be remembered for their faults and shortcomings, but instead for their achievements and ability to defy the odds while stringing together an altogether magical and thrilling year-long journey.
It all started with a 1-7-1 stretch through the first 16 days of the 2019-20 regular season. The Stars were struggling to generate traction, had suffered some unfortunate injuries early on, and couldn’t get out of their own way. Their offense continued to struggle with creating chances and pressure, their usually stout defense was being picked apart, and Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin weren’t stealing games in the crease as they had throughout the 2018-19 campaign.
The team was floundering well below the expectations bar that had been set for them in the preseason and hopes of a playoff berth, let alone a Stanley Cup run, were quickly fading as the first month rolled along.
It all came to a climax on Oct. 29 as the Stars found themselves in a 3-0 hole against the Minnesota Wild on home ice. Fans were booing, the Wild were rolling, and the idea of a 4-9-1 record seemed to be quickly transforming into a reality.
But then, Alexander Radulov happened. A hat trick for the winger and a six-goal push by Dallas led to a victorious rally in the final 21 minutes of regulation as the Stars survived a scary pre-Halloween matchup and avoided pushing the doomsday button for another day.
That win ended up being part of a 14-1-1 run that the Dallas Stars strung together from Oct. 19 – Nov. 25. They were the best team in the NHL over the span, scoring 3.38 goals per game while giving up just 1.81. They refused to lose games and looked like the Cup contender that everyone had painted them out to be in the preseason.
All was well until the team fired head coach Jim Montgomery for unprofessional conduct on Dec. 10 and pinned assistant coach Rick Bowness as interim head coach. It was an unexpected shake to what had become a sturdy corps for the franchise and left the Stars to adapt. They did so in a decent way, finishing the year on a 5-3-1 note.
Then came the spectacle that was the Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl. That turned into a 6-4-0 month of January, which was followed by a 9-3-3 showing in a busy February. But as March came into focus, Dallas once again began to stumble as losses to Boston and St. Louis to close out February turned into an 0-4-2 losing streak.
As the rest of the Central Division began to catch up to the third-place Stars and the ghosts of March collapses past began to linger, the season was suddenly halted due to a worldwide pandemic.
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Days turned into weeks, which turned into months as the pause extended into summer with no certainty as to if or when the season may resume and if a Stanley Cup would ever be awarded.
A Return To Play plan was eventually ratified and agreed upon (along with a CBA extension), and 24 teams returned to their practice facilities to prepare for a run at the Stanley Cup in a “bubble hockey” format.
The Dallas Stars were not only a part of the 24-team group, but were one of the eight teams guaranteed a spot in the typical 16-team Stanley Cup Playoffs. And so, with Rick Bowness and the rest of the coaching staff having four months to take an in-depth look at the team, adopt new strategies, and “put their stamp” on the team, the Stars dug into a two-week training camp in the heat of the summer before boarding a flight to Edmonton on July 26 to begin the journey.
And, as we know now, that trip would turn into a 66-day stay as the Dallas Stars navigated a winding and entertaining road through the Western Conference to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
It began on a shaky, uncertain note as the Stars went 1-2-0 in a round-robin slate with the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Vegas Golden Knights. They were outscored 10-4 across the three games and looked remarkably familiar to the team that had ended the regular season on a six-game skid.
That familiarity carried into Game 1 of the First Round against the Calgary Flames. The Stars continued to struggle with producing in the offensive zone and were burnt by a younger, faster Flames team that had made quick work of the Winnipeg Jets in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
But then, as they seemed to do during every other challenging spot throughout the 2019-20 season, they flipped a switch. The Stars went on to win four of the next five games, many of which came in dramatic fashion. Jamie Oleksiak scored with 40 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 2 to give Dallas a 5-4 win. Joe Pavelski completed his first career playoff hat trick with 12 seconds remaining in Game 4 to tie the game and prevent Calgary from taking a 3-1 series lead. Alexander Radulov would then deflect a John Klingberg shot in overtime to help Dallas even the series.
And finally, the Dallas Stars capped the series with a 7-3 win in Game 6 that included an early 3-0 deficit that was followed by seven unanswered goals. Four of those came from the stick of Denis Gurianov, who would finish the postseason with nine goals in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Then came arguably the most entertaining series of the entire postseason as the Stars and Colorado Avalanche squared off in a seven-game struggle for Central Division supremacy. Dallas came roaring out of the gates and won three of the first four games and outscored the Avalanche 19-15 over the span. But Colorado would claw back with a 6-3 win in Game 5 and a 4-1 showing in Game 6 to force a Second Round Game 7 that had become an all-too-familiar hurdle for the Stars.
But this time around, the Stars weren’t denied a trip to the Western Conference Final. They dug in and gutted out a riveting 5-4 overtime win thanks to rookie Joel Kiviranta, who scored the game-winner (his third of the game) in his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut to catapult the Stars into the final four and log the first NHL Game 7 hat trick since Wayne Gretzky.
And then came a matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas had been referred by many as the deepest and most complete team in the NHL, and was an odds-on Stanley Cup favorite for many.
But after a 1-0 shutout win in Game 1 was followed by a flat 3-0 loss in Game 2, the Stars didn’t look back. Dallas rattled off three straight wins, including two in overtime. They changed lanes from the high-flying, high-scoring, and high-danger strategy that had gotten them through the first two rounds (3.77 goals for, 3.54 goals against) and got back to playing “Dallas Stars hockey.” They won the series with a 1.80 goals for average and 1.6 goals against average.
Anton Khudobin took his game to yet another level, stopping 153 of 161 shots (.950 save percentage), Jamie Benn led the way with three goals and five points in five games, the Stars clicked on offense when they needed to, and the team proceeded to take a stranglehold on a late lead and frustrate the Golden Knights to the brink of elimination. And when Vegas had a 2-0 lead late in Game 5, the Stars found a way to strike quickly as Benn and Kiviranta tied the game in a matter of minutes to force overtime, where Gurianov would bury the game-winner on the power play to propel Dallas into the Stanley Cup Final.
The Dallas Stars crafted a thrilling, unexpected, and poetic journey to a stage that the franchise hadn’t taken in 20 years. Through a horrific start and finish in the regular season, to a coaching change, to the flair of a Winter Classic, to all of the new pieces finding their fit in the lineup, to a pandemic and four-month pause, to a shaky restart that gave way to an impressive surge filled with lifelong memories, the Stars made the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs a perfect final chapter to a storybook year.
And though it ended two wins short of the ultimate goal, you can’t discount the path that got them to the final round of late summer playoff run for the ages. As the quote will tell you, it’s not about the destination, but rather about the journey.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we should be thankful and grateful for the good times. We never know when uncertainty and hard times may strike, and that makes the happy moments all the more valuable.
This Dallas Stars team gave a fan base, community, and city a chance to breathe and believe in something every other night for two months. While the rest of the world seemed to be stuck in chaos and uncertainty, the Stars provided an entertaining storyline for us all to invest in and follow.
And though the end result wasn’t ideal, the growth and promise built along the way for the franchise is something to behold. New heroes were born, experience was gained by rookies and veterans alike, new philosophies were tested and adopted, and the Dallas Stars grew as a team.
“We’ve been together here now for what is it, 70 days? Everyone’s been away from their families, girlfriends, wives. I mean, it’s a second family. We spend a lot of time during the season together as well, we’re on the road a lot. We’re brothers. We were having a great time together and this one stings a lot. It hurts. It hurts a lot. This is the dream to play on the biggest stage in the world and you end up losing, it stings. It’s hurting.” – John Klingberg on the growth of the group
They clung to the underdog title that accompanied them with each series and used it as a confidence boost as they outdid the best teams in the Western Conference and took Tampa Bay to six games even with a growing list of injured players.
Rick Bowness did what no Dallas Stars coach had done in 12 years by getting to the Western Conference Final and two decades by getting to the Stanley Cup Final. For all of the flack he took during the regular season, he found a way to get the most out of this Stars team and lead them through a surprising and entertaining run.
“I’m very proud of our players and the organization,” Bowness said following the loss. “Our players laid it on the line. We left everything on the ice. From a coaching perspective, that’s all you can ask: that your players give you everything they’ve got. They did, and that’s why we’re in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.”
Joe Pavelski helped lead a resilient bunch in his first season with the team, scoring 13 goals during the playoffs to become the highest-scoring player 36 years or older in a given playoff year and the playoff goal leader among American-born players.
Season-ending exit interviews will happen in a week or so, giving us a chance to find out injury statuses, talk about the 2020 NHL Draft (Oct. 6-7) and the opening of free agency (Oct. 9), and finally put this year-long journey into the history books.
But this moment in history provides a chance to reflect on what we witnessed (whether in-person or through the TV screen) and endured over the past 365 days.
The Dallas Stars will return for the 2020-21 season (whenever that may begin) with real Stanley Cup aspirations as they begin their quest to repeat as Western Conference champions and take it one step further.
Until then, however, this season provides a bank of memories and moments that we won’t soon forget. It was a magical and successful run that should spawn future growth and promise.
“No one expected us to get here, but we believed in ourselves,” Bowness said. “We were committed to each other, we had team play, we had great camaraderie, great leadership, and we pushed this team as far as it could get. We came up a little bit short, but I’m very, very proud to be their coach.
“I’m very proud of the players, very proud of the organization, and there’s still better days ahead for us. It was a great experience and I enjoyed helping them get here. It’s unfortunate that we came up short. We got as much out of this team as we could, and from a coaching perspective, that’s all you can ask.”
What a run.