Crunch Time

Come clean. You were freaked. It was scrawled across your face, plain as a girl from Tarrant County. Easier to read than simple cousin Merl from Argyle. Even if you don't follow hockey, even if it isn't your bag, you were at least a little concerned because, when the second season rolls around, especially in Dallas, everyone is a Stars fan. Everyone pays attention.

It's only natural. In glaring contrast to the regular season, the playoffs are engaging--the weighty repercussions of each hit, the added importance of each goal. When you've seen the local boys navigate the postseason so expertly, kneeling defiantly before Lord Stanley's altar the past two years, it's hard not to take notice and get swept up in the emotion. Bandwagon? Maybe, but through the haze of a few pints no one remembers if you were on board in the beginning or if you hitched a ride last week. So you inch a little farther up in your seat and scream a little throatier and breathe a little less easy, riding a crazed ebb and flow with each shot that finds the back of the net or smacks menacingly off the post.

"God, it's nerve-racking," says Craig, a Highland Park resident, clad in a faded, white Dallas jersey during the team's final regular season game at Reunion. It's hard to tell if he's more expectant of the Stars' playoff prospects or of the food he's standing in this ridiculously long line for. "When they're in the playoffs, I don't do much. I've got hockey on the brain. I just feel it, you know? I bleed green and gold this time of year." Which, one can only imagine, must be painful.

Obviously, with the Stars in recent seasons, Craig and the rest of you were never all that concerned. Signs were there--watching Dallas skate through the Pacific Division to four straight titles entering this year--that everything was copasetic, so it followed that they'd play well and secure another banner to be later hoisted, gloriously, to the rafters. Figured the defense would tighten. That Eddie Belfour would be great. That Mike Modano and Brett Hull would be, too. And you were right.

But this was different and far from comforting. Perhaps even a little unsettling, like finding out that there's no Santa--or that you were adopted only because you were the last one left, and "mommy" and "daddy" never really wanted me, uh, you, in the first place. Um, or something like that.

There were dismal parts of January and February, stretches where Dallas fans were suicide-compliant--pearl-handled revolvers gripped tightly in some horrible adaptation of the The Deer Hunter. The Stars were struggling, trying to limp in time with rival San Jose in a pathetic scrap for first. The Belfour defection was still fresh, the defense porous, the offense and power play anemic.

"We battled some inconsistencies there in the early going," Derian Hatcher says. He wears those struggles openly. A scar-spotted face. A gap in the front of already crooked teeth. A nose that looks as though it was mashed with a rolling pin, then reconstructed with papier-mâché. "We struggled."

Indeed, the situation looked bleak, like the metroplex would be resigned to a far less prominent post (a poor seed or, worse, a first-round exit) when it was all said and decided. Even coach Ken Hitchcock--a genial man who, ironically, can be brutal when analyzing his club's shortcomings--seemed a little more harried, a bit more encumbered.

That's not where they stand now, of course. Far from it. Could be that they snapped to it of their own accord in some grand, soul-searching epiphany or that they were never as bad as their midseason play may have suggested. Either way, their fortunes have clearly changed.

A 13-game unbeaten streak that began back in early March and sustained the team up through the end of the regular season--a streak born from the loins of a rejuvenated offense and a defense reminiscent of older, more assertive versions--has the Stars where they want to be. Where they, and you, expect them to be: in the playoffs, ass-whup stick in one hand, detailed map to the Cup in the other.

"A month or two ago, I would have never thought they'd rebound," says one NHL beat writer. "But they're playing amazingly right now. It's not the same team, but they look as good now as they did heading into the playoffs a year ago. They could do some damage where, like I said, a few months ago, they looked like a first-round knockout."

Now they are wielding the brass knuckles instead of cowering and peeing. They are, once again, feared, increasing the number of restless Edmonton nights exponentially. Consider, in eight straight games, and 10 of the last 13 heading into the postseason, the Stars held their opponents to one goal or less--a feat that bodes well in the playoffs, where defense is at a premium. Add to this the fact that they've scored in bunches (12 games in March and April with three goals or more), that Hull is an assassin, that Modano is an artist, that Brendan Morrow and Joe Niewendyk and Darryl Sydor and so many others are playing splendidly, and it almost makes you forget the earlier strains.

Still, by itself, this is an assurance of nothing. Happy Days may not be just beyond a sun-soaked, North Texas horizon. True, they are playing well--outstanding, even, and at just the right time--but that won't necessarily lock up a slot in the NHL's final, most important series. There's no telling what could happen between now and then, no real guarantee that they won't be beaten senseless like the Chinese are sure to do to us on the heels of this spy-plane conflict. (For the record, I'd like to welcome our potential Eastern oppressors and state how much I thoroughly enjoy General Tso's chicken and Wang Zhizhi. Down with capitalism!)

"There are tough games ahead," Modano says, entertaining a herd of reporters in the team's locker room--playing rock star with his cool-guy looks. "That's what the playoffs are all about. You have to prepare and push yourself to limits you never thought of. You find out a lot about yourself and your ability in the playoffs."

It's not quite a declaration of dominance, but then, all things considered, it's a more palatable option than having sneaked into the playoffs utterly devoid of hope. A small consolation, but a consolation nonetheless given the bitter, uncertain commotion of a few months ago.

"This is much better," Craig says, grinning like a lithium patient while simultaneously noshing on greasy, ketchup-dripping french fries. "They'd have to put me away, just sign me up in the loony-toony bin, if [the Stars] went into the playoffs playing like they were."

If only for his sanity, and yours, be thankful.