Stars wrap up season, look back on the ride
April 20, 2004
By J. Douglas Foster
A roller coaster isn't a dramatic enough description of the ups and downs of this Dallas Stars' season.
For two and a half months, they looked like they wouldn't sniff the playoffs. For the next three and a half, they looked like world-beaters, sure to waltz into the conference finals.
Turns out the truth was somewhere in between.
This Stars team will be one remembered for facing adversity, and lots of it -- overcoming the first wave, but eventually fading in the regular season thanks to injuries and suspensions and, ultimately, falling out of the playoffs after one round for several other reasons.
"The first two months of the season and the last little bit are really who we were," Stars General Manager Doug Armstrong said. "I guess in the middle was just an illusion of who we want to be."
What the Stars wanted to be was a Stanley Cup contender again, something they certainly had to be considered for several seasons, dating back to their Western Conference Final appearance in 1998, their Stanley Cup championship in 1999 and their Cup Final appearance in 2000.
But this team couldn't reach those heights, and the reasons why were addressed by Armstrong, team owner Tom Hicks and head coach Dave Tippett during Tuesday's final meeting at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco. What was said in the meeting, Armstrong said, was to be kept between Hicks and the players.
But his message was heard loud and clear. And it had more to do with the Stars' performance during their five playoff games against Colorado than anything.
"One thing I can accept is getting beat, because it's competition," Armstrong said. "Last year we lost to a team that was on an unbelievable roll (Anaheim). I can accept getting beat, but I can't accept losing. And this year we didn't get beat. This year we lost.
"This year we cheated not only ourselves, but we cheated Colorado out of a series so they could find out how good they are," Armstrong said.
Unfortunately, the Stars couldn't find it in their hearts to disagree with their general manager.
They know, to a man, that they were far from their best against the Avalanche. And that's what they'll have to deal with during the entire offseason -- if not longer, should the players and owners not settle their differences and come sign a new collective bargaining agreement to avoid another lockout.
"We've got to look at ourselves in the mirror, because we didn't even give Colorado a fight," left wing Shayne Corson said. "That's what's most disappointing, the way we went out.
"We know we're a lot better than we showed in the playoffs."
They certainly looked to be during the middle point of their season.
After standing at four games below .500 in early December -- and going just 23-20-9 during their first 52 games -- the Stars closed with a bang, going 18-6-4-2 in their final 30 games. In fact, during their final 36 games, the Stars had the second-best record in the NHL, going 22-7-5-2 for 51 points. And two of those seven regulation losses came in the last three games.
That late-season slide -- brought on by injuries to Jason Arnott, Stu Barnes, Rob DiMaio, Sergei Zubov, Jon Klemm, Scott Young and Jere Lehtinen, a heart condition diagnosed in Teppo Numminen and a suspension to Marty Turco -- seemed to carry on into the postseason, where the Stars seemingly reverted back to their early-season ways.
They couldn't get a lead in the standings from the outset, and it cost them in their hunt for the Pacific Division title. They couldn't get much of a lead in the games against Colorado, and it cost them in their series. That's what you call a parallel.
"We proved we were a team that could come back," Tippett said. "But if you put yourself in that situation too many times, the percentages are against you."
The hole certainly never felt any bigger to the Stars than it did in early December, in the middle of a four-game road trip in which they went 0-4.
Prior to the last game, in Phoenix, they called a team meeting. And despite the fact they lost the next game to extend their overall slide to five games, that clearly proved to be the turning point of the season.
Captain Mike Modano pointed to his coach as the primary reason for the turnaround.
During the slide, Tippett was almost the model of the opening two lines of a famous Rudyard Kipling poem:
"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting, too. ..."
Tippett's patience, Modano said, was the calm in the middle of the Stars' storm.
"The coach is always in a tough position," Modano said. "That's probably the experience he had: He stayed calm, so the guys stayed calm. Dave needed to hold it together, and he was really the glue for this team."
What Tippett helped the Stars get through, Turco said, will make the core group that stays in Dallas better able to deal with adversity in the future.
After all, they faced plenty this year.
"What happened this year will make a lot of these guys better players and better people," Turco said. "The next time it comes around the guys in this locker room will all handle it better."
Now, Tippett, Modano and Armstrong have to hold it together through labor negotiations and, possibly, a shortened season.
What's next for the NHL is certainly up in the air. But what's on the horizon for the Dallas Stars, Armstrong said, is obvious.
"We're changing," Armstrong said. "We're going in a different direction, and it's not going to include a payroll of $68 million."