There are those gullible enough, stubborn enough and warped enough to believe the Dallas Stars can rally to defeat the Detroit Red Wings.
Hillary Clinton. DISD bookkeepers. Guys convinced that chicks actually go to bars with bacon in their purses.
For the rest of us—the Stars included—reality and resignation formed a bitter confluence 1:38 into the third period of Monday night's Game 3 at the American Airlines Center. Trailing the series 2-0 and the game 3-2, the desperate, dogged Stars were offered a temporary stay of execution via a power play. But even a one-man advantage wasn't enough to level this ice.
In an entertaining but embarrassing sequence more fit for an exaggerated animation pitting hero over villain, Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg steals the puck at Dallas' blue line and rockets toward the Stars' net. In the right slot, about 20 feet from goal, he fakes a shot and violently yet effortlessly changes his skating direction, transforming Dallas' Brad Richards into Wile E. Coyote, corkscrewing harmlessly and humorously to the ice. Liberated from obstructions, Zetterberg casually glides to his left and offers another tease that sends Stars goalie Marty Turco sprawling into a hapless butterfly, flailing to block a shot that still hasn't been shot. In a microcosm of a series in which Detroit's skill has trumped and thumped Dallas' will, Turco, Richards and the Stars see the short-handed Zetterberg's precise puck eventually sailing toward the upper corner of the net. But they can't do a damn thing about it.
"That's a great team. Most of their guys have world-class talent," says the Stars' Mike Modano, after the 5-2 loss buried his team in a 3-0 hole. "You just can't make any mistakes against them. There's no room for error."
If this were an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout in "The Octagon," we'd beg the Stars to tap out before it gets ugly. Or is it already too late?
You can hope for another Miracle on Ice. But, at this point, the Stars would settle for merely having their first lead.
For three games and 180 minutes over five days in two rinks, Dallas has tried everything to combat or at least dent the best team in hockey. In Game 2 in Detroit last Saturday, the Stars had a rare 4-on-1 break yet somehow failed to score as Steve Ott's shot went wide. In an attempt to stir his team's emotions and, perhaps, slice the Red Wings' Chris Osgood into submission, forward Mike Ribeiro gave the goalie a samurai chop to the chest. On Monday the Stars ambushed Detroit with an early flurry that produced two shots that chipped paint but no goals. They juggled their lines, threw vicious hits and attempted to deteriorate Detroit's ballet into a rugby scrum.
But like Tony Romo pledging to avoid publicity, nothing worked. Game 4's funeral is Wednesday night.
The Stars have dictated the tempo exactly once this series. Trailing 1-0 in Game 3 they so outworked Detroit on a first-period possession that the Red Wings were forced to ice the puck and call timeout. Visibly gassed, Detroit still couldn't clear its zone as Brenden Morrow and Modano and Ribeiro grinded along the boards and ultimately set up Nicklas Grossman's goal for a 1-1 tie. But just 37 seconds later the Red Wings negated all that sweat equity by going up 2-1.
Time and again the Red Wings simply sidestep contact, possess the puck and patiently wait for their talent to overmatch the Stars' temperament. Fact is the Red Wings are better. Period. No shame in that. Any doubt the hardware will wind up in Hockeytown? Didn't think so.
The Red Wings have won nine consecutive games, the NHL's longest playoff streak in 15 years. The Stars, since building a 3-0 lead on the San Jose Sharks last round, have lost five of six—and needed four overtimes for the lone victory. More ominous, an NHL team hasn't rallied from 0-3 since 1975.
Admit it. The Stars are out of ideas, out of gas and out of the series.
Morrow hasn't been a factor, Modano's been a ghost, defenseman Matt Niskanen has coughed up a couple of costly gaffes and, most damaging, Turco has been average. When the Stars have needed him to stand on his head, he's again fallen on his face against Detroit.
"I don't feel I've given our guys enough of a chance to win," says Turco, a gruesome 2-13-5 all-time against the Red Wings. "But it's a seven-game series, so we'll see what happens."
Though it's difficult to fathom, given the thorough dismantling to this point, you'd like to see the Stars salvage a game and some pride. A sweep would slap a negative punctuation on what has been such a positive-statement season.
Remember, the Stars entered 2008 with three consecutive first-round playoff exits. A victory over the defending champion Anaheim Ducks dissolved that and helped exorcise some of the demons that tormented the franchise this millennium.
A rejuvenated Modano, the most decorated American-born player in NHL history, may put off retirement another year and come back for a 19th season. Turco, despite his pedestrian play against Detroit, has at least shaken the stigma of being a playoff choker. Though the roster was built by Doug Armstrong, co-general managers Brett Hull and Les Jackson added Richards and took the team to the conference finals for the first time since 2000. Even owner Tom Hicks can take solace that his patience in head coach Dave Tippett paid off.
Most important, the Stars regained their relevancy.
Barring an impossible comeback over Detroit—if the Stars win the series I'll skate around the Galleria's rink at Christmas in nothing but a black-and-green thong—the post-season pinnacle was last week's Game 6 elimination of the Sharks.
Not just coincidentally, it accompanied the evolution and arrival of Morrow.
The 29-year-old got the captain's "C" on his sweater last season. But it wasn't until this spring that he became the team's undeniable leader and the new face of the franchise. He began molding his reputation last year when, hobbling on one leg after an injury, he skated to the Vancouver bench and picked a fight.
But in Game 6, Morrow became a legend.
Between taking first a stick and then a puck to the face, Morrow played 51 minutes, took seven shots, dished out a record 19 hits and, of course, scored the game-winning goal in the fourth overtime of the 2-1 victory. He was relentless. He was terrific. He produced enough warm fuzzies to tide us into next fall.
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And when your best player is also your hardest worker, your future is bright.
"He plays with a real impact all over the ice," Modano says. "The guy is an inspiration to all of us."
Morrow will keep fighting, and the Stars will keep probing and the demented among us will keep planning to skate the Stanley Cup. As the players left the ice Monday night, the AAC's speakers blared Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."
Grudgingly, most of us already have.