Heading into Game 4 between the Dallas Stars and the Nashville Predators in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Preds lead the tantalizingly chippy series 2-1, after Stars goalie Ben Bishop allowed a pair of soft goals in a game where the Stars were clearly the better team on the ice. Yeah! Hockey in mid-April is back! Get hype! I love playoff hockey almost as much as I currently hate Predators defenseman P.K. Subban. All sports manage to rev up the intensity and excitement come the postseason, but there’s some kind of electricity about playoff hockey that none of the other four major sports can duplicate. Sadly, there’s been far too little of it in our burg. The boys in victory green seem to be taking cues from the other five-pointed logo-bearing team in Dallas, and postseason play has been an on-again/off-again affair in recent years.
Just how long Dallas will hang around this postseason remains to be seen. The team that takes the 2-1 series lead advances roughly 68 percent of the time — not exactly comforting odds. The good guys snagged Game 1 in Music City and were a shot away from taking Game 2 as well after sending that match-up to overtime, though they were significantly outplayed throughout the game. Game 3 was the best so far of the series, with both teams dialing up monstrous hits, breath-stealing scoring chances, and headstand saves. Bishop’s uncharacteristic whiffs cost the Stars. Despite the odds, with these teams so evenly matched, it still could go either way. Take Game 4 on Wednesday, and it’s a new series. I wouldn’t put money on picking a winner, so for now, let’s just savor every moment of it, because even though things look promising going forward, there are no guarantees the home team will be back here next year.
Let’s face it. It’s been a decade since the Stars have been consistently relevant, even in the insular hockey world. This makes just their third trip to the playoffs since Obama first started proclaiming, “Yes, we can.” It could be argued that, for local sports fans, the luster and novelty of a game played on ice in Texas began to dull well before even then. Of course, hockey has, and will always have, its die-hard puckheads – those goateed sweater-wearers who hold the same sort of rabid fervor (emboldened by more than a tinge of elitism) for not-quite-so-mainstream sports that soccer devotees also carry in the form of scarves around their necks. But over the last 10 years or so, the slide in interest among the gen pop has been steep and steady.
After arriving in Dallas in 1993, the Stars rode early successes to near ubiquitous enthusiasm in the area. The team made the playoffs in 12 of their first 14 seasons, winning the division crown six times and the Presidents’ Trophy twice. They also appeared in two Cup finals and hoisted one Pantera pool party-damaged Lord Stanley’s Cup. But about the time the Rangers and Mavericks started competing for championships at the turn of the last decade, the once-streaking Stars were suddenly overtaken by mediocrity and indifference, and fans found other bandwagons to jump on. With the Rangers likely headed for the basement of the AL West and the Mavs with an unknown Dirk-less future, the time is ripe for the silver and green to reclaim some footing in the local sports landscape.
Regardless of the way this series ends, the near future looks brighter for the Stars than it has in a good while. The possibility of reclaiming some of that late-’90s/early-2000s consistency finally seems within grasp. The team’s veteran leadership (Jamie Benn, Tyler Séguin, and Alexander Radulov on the forward lines and John Klingberg and Esa Lindell in defense) have been joined by a pair of Finnish rookies in winger Roope Hintz and D-man Miro Heiskanen, who are already carving out massive roles for themselves on the team. Trade deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello’s three goals in his first six games as a Star proves he needs to be re-signed in the offseason as well.
I’m not sure the team is necessarily on the cusp of reclaiming the Central Division title as they did two years ago, but they have many of the components required to make the tournament year after year: a young intriguing coach in first-year bench boss Jim Montgomery, a suffocating defense, stellar goaltending, and just enough scoring to get one more than the other team. If they can manage to string a few successful seasons together deep in the heart of Texas, they may just start shining again.