On Monday night at the Monopoly Airlines Center (the MAC), playoff hockey returned to the great state a’ Texas for the first time since 2008, and not even a 10-minute delay to appease the TV gods killed any enthusiasm from a crowd that was itching for this.
When Stars center Jamie Benn scored the game’s first goal with 35 seconds remaining in the first period, it was a reminder that no one does a postseason any better than the NHL.
It had been a long time since this building generated a tangible feeling from a hockey goal. The last time this place was that loud was Game 5 of the 2011 NBA Finals between the Mavs and Heat.
When Valeri Nichushkin scored with a little more than two minutes remaining in the second period, I had to remind myself this guy is 19 years old.
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The eighth-seeded Stars now trail the best-of-seven series 2-1, and at a minimum for these postseason proved they are not playoff frauds.
Monday night was mostly a lot of fun, a release of considerably pent-up energy, and ultimately significant beyond the final score.
This is how all great teams, and runs, begin. They don’t begin in October, but April.
After 14 years since winning the Stanley Cup, Monday night was the final necessary piece for this organization to move on from a glorious past that has shadowed it for more than a decade. Thank God.
The Stars had fallen into the dangerous and seductive pattern of trying to create a new identity while continually leaning on their old one. Their past was an easy sell.
“You don’t want to ignore your history but you can’t keep coming back to it all the time,” Stars president Jim Lites said. “We always wanted to remind them of Mike Modano, and Derian Hatcher, but those guys are all gone. We had to move forward.”
In their defense, selling overrated prima donnas like Sean Avery is a tough sell. Trotting out Mike Ribeiro as a cornerstone player always felt forced. And marketing “prospects” such as Nicklas Grossman, Marc Fistric, Krys Barch and other guys who don’t make it here never helped us forget the names that mattered.
Names such as Hitch’, Gainey, Belfour, Hatcher, Zubov, Hull, Modano, Lehtinen, Matvichuk, Sydor, Nieuwendyk and those Western Conference Finals in ’99 and ’00 and those consecutive Cup appearances acted like an enormous, warm comforter.
Even in 2008, the last time the Dallas Stars made the playoffs, the ghosts of the good ole days still clung to the rafters, even though the postseasons that made this franchise so grand occurred in another building.
Fans, the evil media, continually compared this defenseman to Zubov, that center to Modano, the new coach to Hitch’, that GM to Gainey.
New team owner Tom Gaglardi has zero ties to that group, and the house cleaning is finally showing some results.
“We had to forge an identity under Mr. Gaglardi that was different for the team, for the fans and everybody,” Lites said. “The biggest thing you have to do is deliver on promises. You can’t just make them.”
To be fair, this team had made bold proclamations before, starting with Lites a few years ago saying, “We’re going to make the playoffs, or else.”
Or else what? Fewer people were going to notice?
Until Monday night, people weren’t noticing beyond the diehards who will care even if the team finishes 0-82.
To their credit, after gutting this roster and focusing on developing young players, some of these young guys are finally starting to hit. That’s the only way it works, and that is why Monday night feels like the start of something more than just the return to the playoffs.
“We have started to change the conversation,” Lites said “That’s what the Mavericks did when Mark [Cuban] bought the team. That’s what the Rangers did a few years ago. That’s what you have to do — you have to be a part of the conversation, and I think we are doing that.
“We have made major moves with players. Our very best players are young. They are not boring. We do have a lot of work to do, but we have a lot to work with.”
Previously, what the Stars primarily had to “work with” was their previous teams, or their broadcaster.
Now the Stars can really sell Benn, Nichushkin, Tyler Seguin, Brenden Dillon, Alex Chiasson, Cody Eakin and some other kids. Remember the name Jack Campbell — he is a goalie playing for the minor league Texas Stars, and looks like he will replace Kari Lehtonen eventually.
And it would really — really — help if Stars GM Jim Nill finds another competent defenseman or two to complement a group of forwards who are as talented as any in the NHL.
Monday night was fun because not only was it the return of playoff hockey to a fan base that was dying for it, and significant because it finally feels like the start of something brand new.