Mac Engel

Dallas Stars capped with Finn 1 and Finn 2 in net

There is no more point to debate or discuss — this is as far as the Dallas Stars are going to go as long as they have Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi in net. There is no conceivable way the Stars trust either of these guys moving forward.

The NHL has implemented every conceivable rule to negate the goalie, but in the playoffs if you don’t have a great one you will not be a great team.

The Dallas Stars do not have a great goalie, and now their brilliant season is over.

The fear that the tandem of Lehtonen/Niemi was not good enough was fleshed out in its ugliest reality as the St. Louis Blues gored the Finnish countrymen to finish the Stars.

The players and coaches all say they win/lose as a team, but the Stars’ emasculating Game 7 loss in the NHL’s Western Conference semifinals is all about the goalie.

There is no other way to explain 6-1.

Six goals allowed on only 19 shots. In a Game 7.

This was the worst “big game” home playoff loss by a local team since the Dallas Cowboys lost 20-7 in old Texas Stadium in the NFC Wild Card game against the Arizona Cardinals to end the 1998 season.

American Airlines Center was jumping, and before the game the Stars played a video with local, home-grown jock stars — Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw and golfer Jordan Spieth — wearing Stars gear and saying inspiring words.

This was the first time the Stars hosted a Game 7 since 2000 when they defeated the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals for a second consecutive season in such a game.

The legacy of the Stars’ franchise in Texas is partly built on those memorable games played in old Reunion Arena when the fans chanted, “Eddie’s Better!” at Stars goalie Ed Belfour, who outplayed Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy.

In those two Stars’ Game 7 wins, “The Eagle” allowed a combined four goals to beat “St. Patrick.”

In Game 7 on Wednesday night, Lehtonen and Niemi allowed a combined five goals in the first two periods.

Finn 1 (Lehtonen) let in three goals on eight shots in the first period. He actually allowed a fourth that was taken off the board when NHL officials ruled Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko was (barely) offside.

Lehtonen allowed the third goal with less than four seconds remaining in the period. During the first intermission Stars coach Lindy Ruff benched Lehtonen for the second time in this series.

“Couple bad periods in this series and that was one of them,” Lehtonen said after the game.

Ruff had no choice but to yank the same goalie who was so good in Game 6 when he stopped 35 shots in the Stars’ win in St. Louis.

Finn 2 (Niemi) was equally bad and allowed in two goals on nine shots in the second period.

Ruff had no choice but to stay with Niemi because he simply did not have any more high-priced, mediocre Finnish goalies to put on the ice.

Ruff pulled Niemi with about five minutes remaining in desperation for the extra skater. Empty Net was just about as good as Lehtonen or Niemi — Empty Net allowed one goal, too.

By the time the Stars skated off the ice after two periods in front of 19,345 depressed fans they were down 5-0. The rest was a sprint to the end.

The Stars didn’t quit but they were finally broken. The goal scored by Patrick Eaves in the third period was mascara to this otherwise ugly beast of a game.

It did not help that the Stars were unable to cash in on a handful of quality scoring chances early in the game, but that is not the reason the home team lost.

The Blues were a bad matchup from the start of the series and it, eventually, played out that way. The Stars’ not having All-Stars forward Tyler Seguin, out with a “lower-body injury,” for basically the entire playoffs did not help, but he was not going to be the difference Wednesday night.

The Stars finished where they should and lost to the better team.

Here is the worst reality from Wednesday: Lehtonen is signed through two more years, as is Niemi. Former Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk’s decision to give a five-year, $29.5 million extension back in September of 2012 still haunted this team.

When the Stars added Niemi in the off-season, current Stars GM Jim Nill handed him a three-year extension.

The Stars know that their two-headed Finnish goalie is good enough to support a brilliantly talented group of skaters to the best record in the Western Conference in the regular season. There is no reason to believe this tandem can get them any further than Wednesday night.

The Dallas Stars had a brutal finish to what was their best season in for far too long. This team finally created some interest in hockey again around here and the franchise should be able to use that to sell itself over the next few years.

“It’s so hard right now because we know we have a good team,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “We had a shot, I believe, to win it this year.”

And in the final minute the fans who did stay cheered them all on by standing and waving their white towels as the team went through the NHL’s greatest custom — the handshake line.

“They are the future of the NHL. They are where the game is going,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Stars. “We all recognize that.”

The Stars will be back. They are loaded for a good run. But they will not finish with the Stanley Cup in their hands until they find but one goalie who is good enough that he earns their trust.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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