On the Radar: Finding an Identity
Tuesday could have been Game 7. Many believe Tuesday should have been Game 7. But it wasn’t. Instead Tuesday was Exit Day at American Airlines Center, officially beginning the off-season for the Dallas Stars.
Yes, the magical ride that was the 2013-2014 Stars season finally came to an end last week. And it did so in the most heartbreaking of fashions. The Stars were 24 seconds shy of forcing a seventh and decisive game with the Anaheim Ducks, but could not hold off a furious late charge. They eventually fell 5-4 in overtime of Game 6, and 4-2 in the series. Before overtime, the Stars had a two-goal lead with 2:10 to play. I suppose it’s somewhat fitting that a season filled with both exhilarating highs and important learning lessons ended on a game that featured both.
There is no getting around the fact that the season closed with a sucker-punch that will sting for a while. However, once the pain does begin to dull, the Stars and their fans will be able to look back on the last seven months with the perspective they deserve. This season was important for so many reasons. After failed rebuilding projects had stacked up one after another, this was the season the Stars took their first tangible step forward in over half a decade. They had spent most of the last five years with questions aplenty about their nucleus, their coaches, their general managers, and even their ownership. Every team has holes and questions. But when those are your questions – as Stars fans can attest to – there is a sense that you are aimlessly floating along. You are a team without an identity. And that is why, of all the things that the Stars accomplished this season, that is the biggest.
This year, both on and off the ice, the Dallas Stars found their identity.
They’ve got a committed, passionate owner who is invested as much emotionally as he is financially to the success of this team. They’ve got an intelligent, seasoned GM who has had a year to diagnose this team’s strengths and weaknesses and will enter his first off-season after seeing them first-hand and looking to improve. They have a Head Coach who tapped into something special in his first season behind the Stars bench. He helped pull career-high point totals out of about half of his roster. When asked what he was most proud of this season, he answered that his team was rarely outworked and outcompeted. That’s the mark of a man who will have the Stars ready every night for years to come. And most importantly, they have a very strong nucleus to build around. The Stars top six scorers, top four defensemen, and starting goaltender are all either under contract for at least the next two seasons or restricted free agents, who are all-but-guaranteed to be locked up in multi-year deals this summer.
As far as their on-ice style is concerned, the Stars also found an identity in that department. And the good news for Stars fans is that it is incredibly entertaining.
The majority of coaches in pro sports are set on limiting risk, and limiting mistakes when constructing their game-plan. While Lindy Ruff still demands accountability out of his team, he wants them to be aggressive. He wants them to make things happen, even if some risk is involved. In most video sessions players don’t want to be caught making mistakes. During his opening round series, Ruff told the media that his players don’t want to be caught not making plays in their video review. His style is built around speed, defensemen joining the rush, and possession and playmaking. In other words, it’s extremely fun to watch, and extremely fun to play. If it looked like the Stars enjoyed themselves this year, it’s because they did. That will continue to breed positive results and entertaining nights going forward.
Additionally, this club’s identity stretches to its city and fanbase. Once again Dallas became a true home ice advantage for the Stars. Including the playoffs, the club went 15-3-3 in their last 21 home games. And the crowds were a sight to behold down the stretch.
If you were fortunate enough to be at American Airlines Center for Games 3, 4, or 6, chances are you still get chills thinking about the scene when the Stars took the ice for the first time each night. Chances are you’re also still watching TV with closed-captioning on due to the decibel-level in the arena.
If you weren’t there, but watched on TV, it translated just as well. The atmosphere was magnificent. Almost 60,000 fans flooded the AAC for their first taste of playoff hockey since 2008. The crowd was electric. They weren’t just loud. They were a great hockey crowd. They tauntingly chanted at Anaheim’s rookie goaltender, who hardly has a household name. They viciously booed Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry every time they touched the puck. They applauded successful clears, lengthy shifts of pressure in the offensive zone. They understood the game, and the timing of it. They even captured the heartbreaking drama when Stephane Robidas sadly was helped off the AAC ice for the second time this season.
They masked the arena in a sea of Victory Green with flurries of white rally towels, and aided the Stars in every way that a crowd can boost a team. This wasn’t a collection of people who were waiting to simply cheer for goals and fights (although they appropriately went bezerk for both). This was a bona fide, terrific hockey audience. Talking to the players after the games was infectious. They couldn’t stop smiling. They all used words like “chills,” “dream of a lifetime,” “incredible” to describe what it was like to play in front of. Tyler Seguin, who went to two Stanley Cup Finals in Boston, said that he’d put the crowd in Dallas up against any Original Six crowd he’s seen.
The 2013-2014 season will always be remembered as the one where the Stars finally broke through. The one where they stopped RE-building, and started actually building.
Of course, it was impossible to think about all of these things when Nick Bonino scored his second goal of Game 6, ending the Stars season less than three minutes into overtime of a game that never should have gone past regulation. When the initial shock wore off, the crowd of 19,323 quickly gathered themselves to salute the Stars one final time. The record-breaking number of people in attendance fought through their broken hearts to show their appreciation one last time to the team that brought playoff hockey back to Texas. And in return the Stars players and coaches fought through their broken hearts and showed their appreciation one last time to an incredible fanbase that had stuck with them, and helped make the return of the Stanley Cup Playoffs feel as special as they should have been.
After the mutual show of respect, the Stars skated slowly off the ice and back to their locker room, and the fans bewilderedly filed out of the arena and into their cars. Thoughts of what could have been – what should have been – have consumed the days since. The pain of Game 6 remains. It will for a while. Watching three Game Sevens on TV – and seeing two won by the road team – doesn’t help matters. However, I find myself going back to the regular season and a reoccurring belief many people - including me – shared.
It doesn’t matter what stage of the season it was. Early, late, through times when it looked like the Stars would make the playoffs, and times where it looked like they wouldn’t. There was always a consistent notion.
Whatever the Stars wound up doing this season, they’d be in position to better it next season.
This year was the first part of a process. Perhaps the most important part. You can’t teach experience. And the Stars got it in spades throughout the year. Back in October, almost half of their roster had played less than a full NHL season. And at the start of the playoffs, over half their roster had never played in a NHL postseason game. Many of these players had never played together before this year. This group accomplished a lot of things that it needed to as part of their growth. They have more to come, but none of it could happen without this year first.
In his final address to his players on Tuesday, Ruff made one thing clear. Just because they achieved what they did this season, it does not guarantee them anything next year. They will have to work for, and earn, everything all over again. Just like they did this year. He’s already started motivating them. And he’s absolutely right. But, while nothing will be handed to them, they will definitely be better equipped to earn that success than they were this year.
This season was the beginning of a multi-year plan. One that calls for annual improvement. The initial bar has been set in a great place. Everyone knows that it will require hard work to be met, but the Stars are confident that they have, and will continue to add, the right pieces to do just that.
This is an exciting time for the Stars organization. They know who they are. They know what they are capable of. And they know that the future is brighter than the already-bright present.
A new hockey season may be five months away. But make no mistake. Hockey is already back in Dallas. We’ll see you for the next step in October.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.