A new tradition has begun in this year’s playoff run for the Dallas Stars: After each victory, a giant Flavor Flav-style medallion depicting the team logo, hanging from a heavy 4-foot length of trailer chain, is given to the game’s standout player. The previous recipient hands it over to him. This past Friday afternoon, that chain was bestowed upon 24-year-old Finnish rookie Joel Kiviranta after his Game 7 hat trick performance, which included the overtime game-winner. Pressed by cheers and chants of “Speech!” by his teammates, Kiviranta stood bashfully, donning the chain, and then simply proclaimed, “We’re not going home!”
The breathtaking Game 7 finale against the Colorado Avalanche, much like the series in general, was a microcosm of sorts for the entire Stars’ season so far. It was far from perfect — a gloomy sense of impending doom hung over most of it, momentum swung wildly back and forth, and just when you thought the door was being slammed shut on their season, the boys in Victory Green™ improbably pried it back open.
After initially storming out to a 3-1 series lead, the Stars slogged through two consecutive duds, allowing the Avs to crawl back into the driver’s seat to force Friday’s Game 7. In that game, after falling down 2-1 halfway through the first period, led by right winger and perennial winner for Best 19th-Century Whaling Vessel Harpooneer Lookalike Alexander Radulov, and the aforementioned Kiviranta, the Stars would come back to tie the game three separate times, including Kiviranta’s second goal of the afternoon just 10 seconds after Colorado’s Vladislav Namestnikov was briefly thought to have put the proverbial dagger in the hearts of the Stars faithful with his go-ahead goal late in the third. Dallas would hang on to force overtime, where Kiviranta would ultimately net the trick seven minutes into the extra frame, sending the teams for handshakes at center ice.
With fans’ necks in traction from such a whiplash-inducing season that began nearly an entire calendar year ago, making the conference finals is an achievement most would have felt was impossible, but, as Dallas has done time and again, they demonstrated fans’ lack of faith to be based as much or more on the decade of mediocrity that has preceded than on the team bursting with heart and fight that’s been taking the ice all year.
They’ve carried that heart/fight with them into the conference finals as well. Far from the offensive fireworks show of the Avalanche series, in Game 1 against the No. 1 seed Vegas Golden Knights, the Stars appeared to slide way back into the Cup-winning Ken Hitchcock era, pulling out a vintage neutral zone trap that frustrated the Knights’ forecheck all game. Anton Khudobin, cemented now as the goalie Dallas will ride the rest of the way, stopped all 25 Knights shots, making his first career playoff shutout look fairly routine and spotting the Stars a 1-0 series lead. Dobby even received the medallion from Kivi after the game.
Despite their first place Western Conference finish, in a sense, Vegas may rank third with respect to the difficulty of the Stars’ opponents so far. Dallas’ team size matches up better with the bigger Knights than it did against either of the smaller, speedier Flames or Avs. I by no means am predicting Dallas’ first trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 20 years, but with their Game 1 win, they can do no worse than tied after two games. (Game 2 will happen as the paper is going to press.) I’m certainly no longer resigned to an inevitable defeat. That heavy logo medallion is going to be passed to another Stars player, or two, or four. I can’t wait to see how far those players will carry the team.