Dallas Stars Finally Align

Something funny happened on the way to penning another Dallas Stars' April obit.

The team that annually dies in the first round of the playoffs not only has life, it suddenly looks like the strongest outfit in the whole damn National Hockey League.

On the heels of a month so horrible it would make even American Airlines cringe, tight has become loose. Conservative has become aggressive. Losing has become winning.

Behold the triumph of lowered expectations.

"I told the guys it's not a bad thing going in under the radar," Stars head coach Dave Tippett said after a pre-series practice at the Frisco StarCenter last week. "But it doesn't really matter if you're the favorite or underdog. What matters is having the tenacity to find ways to win."

I had this all mapped out. You too, right? And it sure the hell didn't include the underdog Stars easily winning the first two games of their first-round series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks in California and taking a lead into Thursday night's Game 4 at American Airlines Center.

No, I was going to eulogize another first-round funeral with clever critiques such as: Mike Modano should retire...Tippett must go...Marty Turco is a choker...Brad Richards = Jason Kidd.

But now?

Something magical is happening. More mind-boggling than Barack Obama bowling a 37 or Terrell Owens teaming up with Flavor Flav on a TV show. Before their playoff beards matured past stubble, the Stars stopped being scared and started growing up.

Barring an epic collapse, a Dallas pro sports team will actually win a playoff round this spring. Hear that, Cowboys and Mavericks and Desperados and FC Dallas? Doesn't have to be one and done after all. It's been awhile; perhaps introductions are in order.

Dallas, second round. Second round, Dallas.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Stars gritty center Steve Ott told reporters in Anaheim after Game 2. "We're prepared for a long series with these guys. But so far we've followed our blueprint perfectly. Why change what we're doing now, right?"

The only thing more shocking than the Stars beating Anaheim is the decisiveness of its domination.

The Ducks, remember, entered as the '07 champs. The Stars have been running on fumes and film clips since winning the '99 title, losing in the first round the last three seasons. Anaheim has a big bully blue line, a playoff-tested goalie and a 28-9-4 home record. Dallas was the league's hottest team in mid-February, but its 2-7-2 March collapsed more feebly than Bob Dole sans Viagra. Turco was 11-18 in the playoffs, Dallas mustered only 12 goals in seven games against the Vancouver Canucks last April and All-Star playmaker Sergei Zubov just went to Germany for some secret procedure for a sports hernia.

Anaheim in five, right? Duck you.

Out of nowhere, the Stars have turned the clock back to a time when they were as feared as Y2K.

Their loosey-goosey locker room last week blared Buckcherry's "Crazy Bitch" and announced the unofficial playoff slogan of "Lock It Down," which sounds like a mutated offspring of "Git 'R Done." As must be the case in the Stanley Cup playoffs, their scorers are grinding and their grinders are scoring. Turco is standing on his head. Mike Ribeiro is flying. Modano is showing a pulse. The Stars blindsided the Ducks with wins of 4-0 in Game 1 and 5-2 in Game 2.

Most of us figured Dallas would struggle to score nine goals the entire series.

But, of course, we failed to calculate in Anaheim's thuggish philosophy that promotes big hits over common sense. The first two games were like a boxing mismatch, with the Ducks flailing haymakers while being jabbed into submission by the quick, canny and simply more skilled Stars. When Anaheim's defensemen weren't impersonating traffic cones, they were taking debilitating penalties that led to six Stars' power-play goals.

In an NHL playoff landscape in which territory is precious, players are cautious and goals arerare, Dallas has led by at least three scores in each of the first two games. In NBA terms, those are 30-point bulges. Seriously, the Stars buzzed around the Ducks as if the champs were AHL sparring partners.

In Game 1 Dallas managed four power-play goals, and Turco recorded the fourth shutout in his last seven playoff games. In Game 2 Modano broke a 2-2 tie with a vintage slapper from the point, followed 55 seconds later by Richards' first playoff goal as a Star.

"It's encouraging, because we are getting rewarded for our work and our belief," Turco said. "It's just sticking with it and paying the price and believing it will go your way."

Said Modano, "It feels different. Feels like a new team."

The result: Dallas grabbed a 2-0 series lead for the first time since 2000, which, not coincidentally, was about the last time we valued a seat on the team's bandwagon.

Stripped to a die-hard, bare-bones fan base after years of playoff failure, the Stars have existed in a vacuum. Since their peak in '99, they've lost 25 percent of their attendance and about half their relevance. The Mavs have 12 times the TV viewers as the Stars, whose regular-season finale drew a smaller audience than—gulp—women's golf.

One sunny trip to the West Coast won't channel Lord Stanley's ghost just yet, but remember, Dallas is more a winner's town than a sports town. Tuesday's Game 3 didn't initially sell out, but you could feel the buzz building around the team's "black out" promotion, the prospect of playing into May and the chance—maybe the last one, in fact—to salute Modano.

He's not the 20-something heartthrob you remember, omnipresent around Primo's happy hours and NHL scoring leaders. Now he's pushing 38. Married to Willa Ford. Accomplished and canonized as the league's all-time leading American-born scorer and the metroplex's longest-tenured sports star. His shirttail still flaps in the trailing breeze and he can still—as in Game 2—bring the heat from the blue line, but even with two years remaining on his contract, you never know when he'll up and retire.

"You go into every year thinking this might be your last chance—that the opportunity might slip by or the door is slowly closing," Modano said last week. "You want to take advantage of that and make the most of it, and you throw it all out there and then make that retirement decision later."

That evaluation can wait. As can Tippett's security and Turco's legacy and the Ducks' repeat hopes and even Brett Hull's urgency. As the co-general manager strolled through the StarCenter lobby last week, he peered toward the windows surrounding his team's practice rink only to find them cloaked in butcher-paper secrecy.

"Really, what are they doing that we can't watch?" Hull grumbled over a cup of coffee. "We got some secret new defense strategy or what?"

Paranoia? Pressure? Purpose? Whatever.

Anything to postpone the obit.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt

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