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The Stars Crashed Down To Earth

Jake Oettinger during pregame introductions
Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Playing for their season in front of a hostile audience on Sunday night, it seemed like the Stars were banking on another miraculous road win in Edmonton—much like the kind they’d gotten in Game 6 of the second round. With a 26-10-5 record while away, Dallas was easily the best road team in the league this year, and it’s a pattern that stuck to them in the playoffs. Until it didn’t.

The Stars felt like a pretty good Cup bet from the start. They had a depth that meant head coach Pete DeBoer felt comfortable sending out his fourth line against McJesus, and despite earning the No. 1 seed in their conference, they avoided the curse of the Presidents’ Trophy (RIP Rangers). More than that, this spring seemed like the peak of a climb Dallas has been making since they fainted out of the Stanley Cup Final in 2020. They gathered up all their little Pokemon and patched up their holes, but for all that they did, the Stars still ended their season in the exact same way as last year—packing their bags after a Game 6 loss in the Western Conference Final.

After Matt Duchene scored the series-winning goal for the Stars against the Avalanche last month, he uttered a line in his postgame interview that I keep coming back to. Amid a loving ramble about his coach, Duchene sidetracked to talk about the bigger picture in the Stars locker room. “Do I want to win a Cup for myself? Absolutely…[But] I think I want to win it more for other guys in that room,” he said. Perhaps I’m just drinking a big pitcher of the PR narrative Kool-Aid, but I do think that quote sums up how the Stars have been playing all season, and what made them feel like such a strong contender.

For casual watchers, Dallas hockey has a way of slipping under the radar, especially in an unconventional market with spotty coverage from the mainstream. It doesn’t have the glam and glitz of playing hockey in Miami, or even the schadenfreude of the Coyotes and Mullet Arena. If general manager Jim Nill is to be believed, there’s no room for a failing team in the southern hockey market, so tanking for a chance at a flashy generational talent seems out of the question. Despite a rich pool of talent, they don’t quite have a superstar headliner. Instead, Dallas has to rely on other things. There is, firstly, a meticulous scouting and development system reminiscent of Nill’s early career with the Red Wings front office of the ’90s. If Jason Robertson was a little taste of what they could make out of a second-rounder with questionable skating, this year felt like undeniable proof that the Stars were finding all sorts of diamonds in the rough and polishing them up nice and sharp (hello Wyatt Johnston and short king Logan Stankoven).

And then there’s that bit that Duchene was talking about. The Stars have been living on the motto “a little less for a lot more” this season. It’s a practice of sacrifices—setting aside old egos to allow room for rising talent, accepting less minutes on the ice in exchange for depth. They were, as Duchene implied, doing it “for other guys in that room,” like former-Sharks-captain-turned-Stars-top-liner Joe Pavelski or even 34-year-old Jamie Benn, who’s been leading their locker room for nearly 11 years now. 

The 2023-24 Stars were magical because they had just a little bit of everything. Between bedraggled warhorses like Pavelski, Benn, and Ryan Suter hunting for their first championship (the three have collectively played 4,324 career games without winning the cup), there were exciting rookies and youngins living in the guest bedrooms of the veterans' homes (once again, hello Wyatt Johnston and short king Logan Stankoven). For those invested in the narrative, there was Duchene’s cathartic game-winning goal, which ended the playoff run of the team that had traded him away; a resurgence of Benn and Tyler Seguin that made you ask if the year was 2015; and the way Mason Marchment adored all of his goalies so dearly after each game. Oettinger even put a tribute to Marchment and Ty Dellandrea, one of the guys that fluctuates in and out of the lineup, on his new mask with a little illustration titled “Otter and Friends Golf Adventures.” The end product was this rag-tag group that felt closer than a workplace. Seguin and backup goalie Scott Wedgewood even go back all the way to high-school prom.

But while they may have been menaces when away, the Stars had a mere 4-6 record at home this postseason. Despite some close overtime defeats, the team has been totally incapable of winning Game 1s for a few years now—some sort of cosmic opponent to that of a Leafs Game 7—and as the top seed in the West, the Stars fumbled the customary home-ice advantage at every turn. For all that cohesiveness and stardom across all age ranges and backgrounds on the roster, the team still felt misaligned at critical moments. As each series chipped away at the Stars, it left their cracks vulnerable. An injured Roope Hintz was sorely missed in the Game 1 loss to Edmonton. Despite Robertson carrying the Stars to victory in Game 3, his scoring was absent for ten games prior. The team also failed to convert on the 14 power plays they had during the series, even allowing a particularly heart-wrenching shorty from Mattias Janmark in Game 4. And aside from Game 6, I don’t think it would be right to say that the Stars got “goalied” by Stuart Skinner, whose playoff save percentage is .897 through 16 starts.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore what’s on the other side of this loss. Pavelski, who’s been a backbone for the team on and off the ice, could retire this summer, and when asked about his landlord and mentor postgame, Johnston couldn’t help but get teary-eyed. While a portion of the roster is locked down, Duchene and Chris Tanev, who they picked up for this go-around, may or may not re-sign. Another concern: Benn and Seguin are the team’s highest-paid players, but how long can they stave off the effects of age?

Perhaps the Stars haven’t reached the top of their climb yet. Jim Nill has played a smart game by not selling the farm, and I’d like to think that the house that this organization has built is meant to weather storms. With more talent ripening, Dallas could be poised to break out again. But that’s far ahead of us. For now, all that’s left this year for the Stars is more golf adventures.

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