Stars of wonder
Whatever happens from here, even if the Sharks win three straight and deliver another dose of disappointment to American Airlines Center, the Stars have had themselves a season. Knocking off the defending champion Ducks in Round 1? Deflating the reputedly impending champion Sharks in Round 2? Getting themselves to within one win of the Western Conference finals?
Maybe Stars coach Dave Tippett didn't get a Jack Adams nomination for Coach of the Year, but hešs on my short list.
What a vexing team Dallas was when the regular-season began! Maybe they could score a bit (or not: center Mike Modano was 37, after all). Maybe they could rankle you defensively (or not: blueliner Mattias Norstrom had been cast-off by the Kings, you know). Maybe they could stop the puck (or not: goalie Marty Turco sure had his problems in the playoffs.) Whose team was it anyway? Modanošs? Brenden Morrowšs?
A team with an identity crisis looks like easy prey in a division as powerful as this yearšs Pacific, as does a team that lumbers out to an ordinary 7-7-3 start as Dallas did. When Stars owner Tom Hicks fired general manager Doug Armstrong and anointed Les Jackson and Brett Hull as co-GMs, I called him to talk about it.
"I believe this group we have here is good enough to make a run at the Stanley Cup," Hicks said at one point.
I was thinking, "Right, and your Texas Rangers have the pitching to make a run at the pennant."
Yet Hicks was on to something. After the front-office shuffle, the Stars went 34-15-2 before a season-ending swoon. At one point, Dallas cut the Red Wings' 17-point lead in the conference to just five.
It's easy to wonder how the Stars are winning the way they are. Morrow is marvelous, of course. Defenseman Stephane Robidas' coming out party has been a hoot. Turco has been playing like the regular season Turco. But what it's really about in Dallas is that every little guy you ever (or never) heard of is getting a chance to make a difference in the game.
Tippett parcels out ice time with an equity that not only keeps his players happy, but also keeps his team insistently fresh. How's this for balance: The Stars have 12 players averaging more than 14 but less than 20 minutes of ice time a game this postseason. The top-heavy Sharks have exactly four guys like that.
Little wonder that Dallas -- its late surrender in Game 4 not withstanding -- has emerged as the NHL's best third-period team, outscoring playoff opponents 17-6 in the final frame.
"It's our poise, our ability to stay focused and with the program," said center Brad Richards, talking about the Stars' third-period thriving.
Richards has been part of the program since late February. With Modano and Mike Ribeiro, he gives Dallas the NHL's best core of centermen west of Pittsburgh. That trio is one reason why Tippett can look at his lines before a game and shout: "Roll 'em!"
If the Sharks still appear dangerous -- and once you accept that Joe Thornton, his largeness be damned, is going to play on the perimeter you can let yourself enjoy the work that he does from there -- the Stars seem uncommonly resilient. In Game 4, San Jose was finally aggressive, finally determined, and their talent finally shone through. For long stretches, Dallas took about as good a licking as the Sharks can deliver and still only lost 2-1.
These Stars are no fluke. This is a t-shirt and lunch-bucket team, well coached, tireless on the forecheck and strong in the right areas (read: the corners, the sideboards and such). Maybe they end this second-round series on Friday night, maybe the Sharks send it back to Dallas. Whatever. These Stars have already had themselves a year.