As he stood in the locker room in the comical, oversized, baby diaper-looking remnants of a de-padded goalie’s shorts, Anton Khudobin accepted the awarded to the night’s team MVP, and in his thick Russian accent roared, “We’re. Not. Go-ink. Hhhhhhhhhkkkkkkome!”
The words, originally an expression of awe and relief from teammate Joel Kiviranta after Dallas survived a thrilling back-and-forth Game 7 in the previous series, have become a de facto team mantra of sorts, a declaration, a battle cry. One can imagine it bannered across a line of official team merchandise sold to commemorate an already all-time unforgettable season, one that amazingly is still going on.
With Monday’s Game 5 overtime victory (their fourth of the playoffs!) against the bully Vegas Golden Knights, the Dallas Stars — and I can’t express how unbelievably bizarre it is to actually type these words — are Western Conference Champions and will advance to the Stanley Cup finals.
The last time the Stars entered a Stanley Cup Final round, I had to drive my crumpled-hooded, stick-shifted ’92 Honda Civic — with the shoddy cassette deck that at steady three-second intervals briefly slowed and dropped the pitch of whatever music it was playing — the whole 45 minutes from Denton to my parents’ house in Arlington to watch the games because the crappy wood-paneled tube set in my tiny student apartment didn’t get over-the-air TV. The fact that many reading the previous sentence would likely be confused by references to such quaint and archaic technologies is a testament to just how long ago it was. The drought is nearly old enough to buy beer. The ultimate loss to the New Jersey Devils took place just as we were all coming down from the paranoia of the Y2K freakout.
Sure, a multi-decade absence in competing for a championship is in part an indictment on the probable mediocrity of a franchise, but it also highlights just how difficult a mountain a championship run is to schlepp, especially in the sport of hockey. Naturally, because we live in The Upside Down and nothing makes sense anymore, the Stars would somehow manage this feat in a season that saw them begin the year with a last place-ranked 1-8 record, the sudden, unexpected firing of a head coach (after he reversed the abysmal season start, lifting them to five games over .500 at the time), a season-capping nine-game losing streak that straddled a four-month-long suspension of play due to an unprecedented global pandemic, and a subsequent playoff run that found them the underdog in three straight series, all taking place away from fans in an isolation “bubble” in a foreign country.
Yet despite all of that, or perhaps because of it, somehow, the Stars’ season continues into the final round. To achieve a chance to play for the Stanley Cup takes every sports cliche there is: your best players playing at the highest level, boundless determination, guts forged from cast-iron, the will of that , and, yes, some catch-a-leprechaun-and-force-him-to-grant-you-wishes-type magic. Led on the ice by captain and prototypical “strong silent type” hero Jamie Benn — who has played like a demon in search of a soul to eat — and in the crease by Dobby with what so far is a Conn Smythe-worthy performance, now that they’re in it, the Stars seem to have all the requisite mojo to make it count.
Make no mistake, they are likely about to run into a veritable 19-man woodchipper in the form of the Tampa Bay Lightning once they close out their own series against the New York Islanders (provided they haven’t already by the time of this printing). The Bolts feature two of the top three scorers in the playoffs in Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, six of the Top 10 +/- leaders (including Victor Hedman’s playoff best +16), and a netminder in Andrie Vasilevskiy that is the only human in the postseason that has potentially been better than Dobby at the position. This last series will be Dallas’ toughest challenge yet — as it should be. When this last series is over, the Stars will actually finally be “go-ink hhhkkome,” but considering the divinely ordained script they seem to be following in this crazy year, I would no longer be surprised if they have another large silver hunk of hardware for Benn, Dobby, and co. to bring home with them.