When Dallas ended a five-season playoff drought, Lindy Ruff didn’t look like a coach with 16 years of experience and plenty of trips to the postseason.
The often stoic Ruff acted like a giddy first-year boss building something new. And that’s what he is for the Stars.
“I am so damn happy,” Ruff said a few minutes after he shook every hand he could find behind the bench following a playoff-clinching 3-0 victory over St. Louis on Friday night. “Our team played awesome.”
The victory made the regular-season finale at Phoenix meaningless.
Hockey teams always salute their fans after the home finale, and the Stars got to do it with the promise of games to come for the first time since losing to Detroit in the Western Conference Finals in 2008.
Dallas, the eighth seed in the West, will play either Anaheim or Colorado in the first round. Anaheim went into its game late Saturday night at Los Angeles needing one point to clinch the top seed in the West.
The 2014 NHL playoffs begin Wednesday.
“Now it is just starting,” said goalie Kari Lehtonen, who has just two career playoff starts, both with Atlanta in 2007. “We feel good about this and we know we can celebrate and have a good time. But then it’s back to business, and it’s exciting.”
Rich Peverley celebrated with his teammates on the same bench where his season ended a month earlier after he collapsed during a game because of an irregular heartbeat and had to be revived by medical personnel.
The shaken Stars won a night later while the 31-year-old was in the hospital, but a four-game losing streak followed, leaving the Stars several points out of the final playoff spot. They also had a 1-8-1 stretch in January.
Dallas scrambled back into the postseason race by answering the four-game skid in March with five wins in six games. The playoff-clinching win over the Blues capped an 8-4 stretch.
“I’ve been through those first-round series, and they’re tough,” Ruff said. “But we’ve hardened ourselves by getting into the playoffs by the route we’ve taken.”
Trevor Daley went to the playoffs with the Stars each of his first three full seasons. At that point, the franchise had reached the postseason 16 times in 19 seasons, including a Stanley Cup Finals victory over Ruff’s Buffalo Sabres in 1999.
Daley was on the ice three years ago when the Stars lost to Minnesota in a season finale when they just had to win to get in. The past two years, Dallas was in position to make the playoffs with five games to go but went a combined 0-9-1 in those 10 games.
“Obviously the past never really leaves you, especially when you haven’t gotten in and it’s been an ongoing thing for the last five, six years now,” said Daley, who scored the first goal against the Blues and assisted on Tyler Seguin’s goal that made it 2-0. “Obviously, that was in the back of my mind.”
Fired in the middle of his 15th season with Buffalo last year, Ruff was brought in by new general manager Jim Nill, who ended up overhauling the offense with a series of moves highlighted by the trade that brought a young former Stanley Cup winner in Seguin from Boston.
Nill drafted Russian teenager Valeri Nichushkin knowing he likely would have to play in the NHL to keep him from staying in his home country. The 54-year-old Ruff to blend mostly young players with some veterans and it worked.
“He’s been able to push us the right way and we’ve added a few players and they showed, too, that they are great players,” Lehtonen said. “Nothing but good things to say about Lindy.”
The coach who hasn’t won a postseason series in seven years is back in the playoffs, too.