Did we just witness the moment when the Dallas Stars go from regular-season overachievers to a championship team?
The vibe left behind in their six-game series win over the Minnesota Wild was that it was their hockey bar mitzvah: ‘Before today, you were but playoff boys; now, you are playoff men! Baruuuuuch atah adonai …”
They needed this scare from a Minnesota Wild team that was overmatched, even without Tyler Seguin wearing the Dallas green. They needed to see their defense and goaltending being good enough to win a playoff round, albeit one against a Minnesota team that was 18th in the League in goals-per-game and was missing Zach Parise.
But more than anything, they needed to feel that crashing wave of momentum as a team they pushed to the brink of the abyss conjured everything they could muster in their last period of the season.
You can’t gameplan that, or watch it in practice. You have to experience it.
Jason Spezza had experienced it a few times in Ottawa. He was 22 when the Senators beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 in Round 1 of the 2006 playoffs. He was 23 when the Senators eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres – all by a 4-1 count – en route to their Stanley Cup Final loss to the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi spring to mind when you talk about playoff experience, because they all have rings. Spezza is seeking his first, but he’s seen it all before, too.
"I think it's good for a young team to see that and go through it," Spezza said last night, via Mike Heika. "I know we'll use that going forward. This will show how hard it is to put teams away, how much they don't want their season to end. This is a lesson we will definitely remember."
Spezza finished with a goal and three assists. "We have to learn to be better in the third, but I know we have never been pressured like that by another team,” he said. “They were fighting for their lives, and we felt it. It was real. They were throwing five guys at us, everything but the kitchen sink, and we found a way to survive."
And they’re obviously better for it.
There’s a lot to like with this Dallas Stars team right now. Jamie Benn has elevated his game, if that was possible, and is leading the playoffs in points. And while the Dallas defense isn’t going to win them games, it managed to not lose them the series. For example, their EV Corsi rating with a one-goal third-period lead in the regular season was 45.6 percent, and a minus-37 count; through four games in the playoffs in that situation, it’s 51.5 with a plus-2.
And yet there’s a lot we don’t know about this Dallas Stars team. Like the health of Seguin. Like what happens when it’s the Chicago Blackhawks or St. Louis Blues on the other side of the ice instead of a flailing Wild team, and Alex Goligoski and John Klingberg decide to put down a “WELCOME” mat and call it “defense.”
And, of course, what the hell to think about that goaltending.
Niemi and his putrid .857 EV save percentage were kicked to the bench in favor of Kari Lehtonen for Game 6, who hung in their and won both his first road playoff game and his first playoff series. He game up four goals on 29 shots, the second straight game he surrendered a four-spot; but he has only given up five even-strength goals on 86 shots for a .942 save percentage.
"I guess it's 12 years in the league now and this is the first time I'm on a serious winning team," Lehtonen said. "So I enjoyed it a lot, and it makes me want to get more."
As Tim Cowlishaw writes, the goaltending situation has been a cause for concern for pretty much the entire season, and yet the team finished with 109 points in the regular season, despite a 2.78 team GAA, the highest for any playoff team. The goaltending wasn’t good, frequently, but it was good enough.
Many wondered if all of this was ever going to be a recipe for playoff success. And yet here are the Dallas Stars, now eight wins away from the Stanley Cup Final.
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