Photo: Glenn James Glenn James/Dallas Stars

Sports

Is Dallas Ready for the Stanley Cup Finals?

The city has been caught blindsided by a Dallas Stars team that is on the precipice of hockey’s highest glory

Hey Dallas! Your Dallas Stars are in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Let that sink in for a minute. It hasn’t really sunk in for me yet. I blame it on the bubble, the weird out-of-sync timing of this year’s NHL playoffs, the lack of home games, rowdy fans, crowded bars, and all the usual trappings that mark a sports team’s journey all the way through to the season’s final showdown.

Our internal seasonal sports clocks are set to expect nothing but Cowboys chatter this time of year. Instead, the Stars clinched their spot in the Stanley Cup Final nearly a year to the day after they arrived at training camp in 2019 to begin preparing for what turned out to be an epic and bizarre 2019-2020 season.

This year is different; we all know that all too well by now. But let’s not allow that to make us lose sight of what the Stars have managed to pull off—and what they hope to bring to fruition with four more wins. It has been two decades since Dallas competed for the Stanley Cup. The last time was on the ice at Reunion Arena, which today is an empty field in a forgotten corner of downtown. Now they will try once again, only in Edmonton, Alberta. And the journey to get there has been nothing short of extraordinary.

In many ways, what the Stars have already accomplished outpaces the achievements of most sports teams in this city’s history. Don’t believe me? Have you missed it? Has the Stars’ sudden surge towards glory blindsided you? Then, let’s walk through some of the top storylines of the Stars’ incredible ride.

Yes, Hockey Is Different This Year. It’s More Difficult.

Some sports have fared better in COVID world than others. As far as I’m concerned, this year’s baseball season—with its goofy, everyone’s invited playoff format; National League DHs; rampant pitcher injuries; and shortened season—has a massive asterisk next to it. But hockey works in the bubble—in fact, it works really well. Like the NBA, the crowd-less, bubble environment has not drained the sport’s competitiveness. If anything, it has made it more physically and psychologically grueling. As one team staff member put it in this behind the scenes video, the bubble makes every game feel like a road game.

That taxing environment is significant because the NHL playoffs are already a peculiar phenomenon. Playoff hockey can often look like an entirely different sport than regular season hockey. It is not simply that the game is faster, more physical, and more intense—as if NASCAR transitioned abruptly to Indy cars that were raced on a demolition derby track.

Playoff hockey is rabid and ferocious, but also fickle and a little mysterious. The game’s intangible qualities—the peculiar way pucks bounce, the unexpected times when sticks break, the enigmatic influence of abstractions like will and momentum—enact a kind of voodoo on the game, as if chance and fate, and not men with sticks and skates, were really in charge of the action on the ice. It is a quality of the game that meshes with players’ many odd superstitions.

All this feels somehow amplified in the atmosphere of the “bubble,” which has made the road to the Stanley Cup finals all the more arduous and hard-fought. That the Stars have managed to navigate this gauntlet of bubble-bound playoff hockey is not merely a testament of their talent and skill, it speaks to the depths of the team’s emotional and psychological resilience. And that, ultimately, is the essential quality of every Stanley Cup champion.

‘The Comeback Kids’

And how have your Dallas Stars managed to battle their way through to the last stage? By becoming what Tim Cowlishaw has dubbed “the Comeback Kids.” They were down two games to one against Calgary. Didn’t matter. They fell behind 3-0 in the sixth game against the Flames. Didn’t matter. They were four minutes away from being eliminated in game 7 against the Avalanche. The Stars found a way to win. They did it again against Las Vegas, clawing their way back into game 5 after being down 2-0 in the third period before banishing the Knights from the bubble in overtime.

This kind of sustained capacity for finding ways back into games—for willing victories into fruition—is an aspect of the voodoo quality of playoff hockey. It can’t be attributed to stats or score lines. But you can feel it, and the feeling is real.

Even if you don’t follow hockey – if the puck seems too small on the TV or the blur of skaters look like bees swarming on a frozen rink – how can you not fall for a team that has displayed this much sheer hutzpah? The city should be in an absolute frenzy. Maybe, behind closed doors, Dallas is losing its collective mind. I’m not sure. But inside the sealed-off NHL bubble, the Stars have been drafting a fairy tale.

The Long, Lonely Journey of Jamie Benn

Back in 2013, I spent some time hanging around the Stars locker room while working on a story about one of my childhood heroes, Jaromír Jágr, who was on his late-career, one-year contract tour of the league. At the time, the chatter around the Stars organizations was all about the sleeping giant of the league named Jamie Benn, then in his fourth season with the team. Jamie was going to carry the Stars to the Stanley Cup.

Maybe not that year, but definitely the next—or maybe the year after that. The Stars’ front office strategy over the past decade has always centered on their top line captain. The only question was how to fill out the cast of characters around their leading man.

A few years later, I was sitting in the owner’s box at the AAC with Tom Gaglardi watching a mid-season Stars game and listening to the Canadian owner grumble under his breath about Benn’s play on the ice. At times, Gaglardi has been quite vocal about his frustration with his captain. In 2018, Gaglardi called Benn and line mate Tyler Seguin’s play “fucking horsehit.” The truth is, over the past decade, the 31-year-old forward’s quality has wavered. And yet, ever since he arrived in Dallas in 2009, the Stars franchise has been on Jamie Benn’s shoulders. It was always up to Jamie to bring the cup back to Dallas.

And now, he’s nearly done it. And how has he done it? By being an absolute thoroughbred on the ice. These playoffs, Benn has performed like a pure offensive grinder, scoring eight goals (tied for third in the playoffs) with 10 assists. Not all of Benn’s goals are fit for the highlight reel, but he has had a bloodhound’s nose for being in the right place at the right time and slamming the door shut when it counts. That almost makes Benn’s performance more satisfying.

It’s bread-and-butter hockey, and he complements his offensive production by using his body to harass the opposition and gain the upper edge in the mental game. After years of struggling to lead his team to the playoffs—this is only the Stars’ fourth appearance in Benn’s 11 seasons—the Stars’ captain is asserting himself as the superstar the franchise always believed he could be. It is Jamie Benn’s redemption song.

From Russia With Love

Not enough storyline for you? Okay, then let’s talk about Anton Khudobin. Khudobin is the Stars’ Russian netminder (incidentally, all three of the remaining starting goalies in the playoffs are Russians). But Khudobin shouldn’t be in goal. The Kazak, who developed his game in the backwaters of Magnitogorsk in the southern Ural Mountains, has spent most of his NHL career as a backup.

Khudobin isn’t even the Stars’ starting goalie—he’s starting in these playoffs because Ben Bishop is injured. Before this season, Khudobin had logged only 38 minutes of playoff hockey. And like Benn, at 34, Khudobin is writing one of the last chapters of his NHL story.

And what a story it has been. No team lasts very long in the playoffs without a goalie who can deliver a transcendent performance. In laymen’s terms, the goalie must be “hot,” but that doesn’t really capture what happens. It is more like the goalie enters an altered state of consciousness, a heightened mental zone–as if the goalie is no longer an athlete blocking shots, but rather a dancer engaged in a strange syncopated performance with a three-inch rubber disk.

On paper, Khudobin’s routine translates into 12 wins in 19 games, a .920 save percentage, and a 2.62 goals-against average. Those stats don’t rank Khodobin among the best goalies in these playoffs—and they don’t really capture what he has mean to this team. To understand that, you have to watch him dance.

That kind of Jedi-like grace—which has saved the Stars’ skin numerous times during their deep playoff run—would be enough to endure Khodobin to Dallas sports fans. But then the guy opens his mouth. On Tuesday, the hosts of 1310 The Ticket’s The Hardline caught up with Khodobin on the phone while he was on a golf course inside the bubble.

With endearing, matter-of-fact sincerity, Khodobin regaled the hosts with stories that offer a glimpse of what life is like in the bubble (the goalie is happy just tooling  around in a golf cart watching his teammates play their rounds). He related an anecdote about a peculiar sounding Russian ritual — eating crawfish and drinking beer in between sweat sessions in a sauna — and explained his preference for white wine over vodka. After listening to the 17-minute conversation, which ends with Khodobin ensuring Stars fans that the team “feels their energy” in the bubble, it is impossible not to love the guy.

The Final Round

With storylines like these, how can you not get excited about this Stars team? Turn the skyline green. Start stitching Dallas Stars face masks. Organize one of those synchronized cheering events we put together for the COIVD-19 frontline workers. In what has been a fairly bleak year all-around, this team has given this city something to hope in.

Don’t plan the parade, but if the Stars manage to pull off the unmentionable, how can we deny die-hard Stars fans the right to lose their collective minds in the streets for the first time in a long 20 years—albeit with themed masks and proper social distancing? What better way could there be to re-introduce public gatherings?

But we’re not there yet—there are four more games to win. The Stars don’t even know who those games will be played against or when they will start. The truth is both the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning will be formidable opponents. Stars fans have reason to root for the Islanders, who are down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, to stretch the series against Lightning, if only to allow the team more rest and ensure a worn-out future opponent.

The Isles are the other Cinderella story of the tournament, a young team reigniting a storied franchise that has spent decades wandering in the wilderness, laden with administrative incompetence. They’re hungry and tenacious, and even if they don’t get past the Lightning, they are going to be hanging with the contenders for years to come. Game 6 is tonight.

For upstarts like the Stars and Islanders, the Lightning are like the Hawks in The Mighty Ducks, and even more so for Stars. Stars head coach Rick Bowness was a defense coach at Tampa Bay before he was fired in 2018. He would face his old head coach, Jon Cooper, in the finals, if that match up shakes out, adding a Emilio Estevez vs. Lane Smith subplot to the mix.

The Bolts are bigger, more experienced, and, even though currently short on forwards due to injuries, have more pure talent than any team out there. They have the best top line and the best defensemen in the league (Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman is an astounding plus-17 in the playoffs).

They have their own Russian goalie who has found his way into the astral plane of transcendent net minding. They led the NHL in scoring during the regular season, and they have given up fewer goals than both the Stars and Islanders in the playoffs. They are disciplined, know how to dictate the pace of games, and force opponents to play near-perfect hockey just to stay in contention.

But this is playoff hockey. At this point of the season – regardless of whether the playoffs are in April or September – all bets are off. Spooky things start to happen. Pucks bounce. Blades slip. Sticks break. Goalies swell in size. Seconds stretch on like hours. And, as the Dallas Stars have shown us, wins may be willed into being.

Now, the Stars have strung together enough wins to make it to the final dance. They only need four more.

Are you ready?

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