THROUGH THE DISAPPOINTMENT, the reverence in the voice of Dallas coach Dave Tippett rang clear.
"It's not just the talent and skill," he said of the Detroit Red Wings moments after they'd eliminated his Stars, "it's how hard they compete."
Dallas came into the Western Conference finals having upset the defending champions from Anaheim and a San Jose team that many pundits had picked as the Cup favorite. But the Stars ran into a buzz saw in the disciplined Wings, who promptly slapped them back to a reality befitting a fifth-place team.
Game 1 saw a prototypical Detroit performance. Flashing their speed and passing to break through Dallas's trap, the Wings drew their opponents into a series of restraining fouls. Detroit scored three times on its first five power-play opportunities and cruised to a convincing 4-1 win that set the tone for the series.
Though the Red Wings' superior skill level was on display, the game was defined more by Detroit's grimly efficient defensive scheme. The determined dogging of Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro by Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk ensured that neither Dallas star would be a factor. "They don't give you any room out there," Morrow said. "They never quit on a play."
The Detroit offense suffered what looked like a critical blow moments before Game 2 when Johan Franzen, the leading goal scorer of the playoffs, was ruled out indefinitely with concussionlike symptoms. But even without the Mule, the Wings scratched out a 2-1 win on the strength of a defensive web that limited the Stars to 18 shots.
Dallas's frustration carried over into Game 3, where it was again stymied, getting off just 18 shots in a 5-2 thumping at the American Airlines Center. A virtuoso three-goal performance by Datsyuk and three points from Zetterberg notwithstanding, this was another example of the value of a consistent effort. "Those two are a rare breed," Tippett said. "They're a line that you [think] you should be checking, but in actual fact they are a checking line. That's the difference right there."
With the demoralized Stars down three games to none, the scene was set for a second consecutive series sweep for the Wings. But a determined effort by goalie Marty Turco in a 3-1 victory derailed Detroit's franchise-record nine-game playoff winning streak and allowed Dallas to avoid a handshake line in front of its fans—at least temporarily. The win proved to be something more than a last gasp: Newly emboldened, the Stars went back to Detroit for Game 5 and stunned the Wings 2-1.
But just when it seemed that momentum had swung in favor of the Stars, Detroit rediscovered the determination and grit that had characterized its game. Kris Draper redefined smashmouth hockey when he opened the scoring less than four minutes into Game 6, inadvertently using his face to deflect Dallas Drake's wrister past a stunned Turco. His sacrifice energized the Wings, who spent the next 20 minutes swarming the Dallas net, swelling the lead to 3-0 before finally sealing the deal with the 4-1 win.
In taking the conference finals four games to two, the Wings earned their 23rd Stanley Cup finals appearance and the chance to win their 11th Cup. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins stood in their way.