As the crow flies, Dallas and St. Louis are separated by 547 miles. In this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the distance between the Stars and the Blues was much closer. Through the first six games of their West semifinal series, each team had won three games. Each had scored sixteen goals. But measuring up so evenly with the Blues is cold comfort to the Stars, who ended their season on the wrong side of a 2-1 score in double overtime of Game 7 at the Enterprise Center on Tuesday night.
If not for the heroics of Stars goalie Ben Bishop, the Blues likely would have been celebrating their trip to the Western Conference finals much sooner. Bishop was the proverbial wall for Dallas, making a career-high 52 saves in the loss. Bishop seemed to show no ill effects after being felled by a Colton Parayko snapshot in Game 6, and allowing a controversial goal while writhing on the ice in pain.
The Blues simply kept coming and coming, and early in the second overtime, Blues winger Robert Thomas snapped a shot off the post. Bishop knew the puck was probably behind him and did his best not to push it into the net himself, but St. Louis’ Pat Maroon tapped the puck home, ending the Stars’ season.
The ending was the perfect microcosm of the 86 minutes of hockey that preceded it, with the rest of the Stars unable to save Bishop and their season after he’d done so much to save his teammates. As disheartened as Stars fans feel, solace may be found in knowing that Bishop feels the same way.
"The first word that comes is frustrated," Bishop said after the game. "It's frustrating to lose in an overtime, and then to lose a season-ending (game), it's frustrating right now.”
With so much promise surrounding the Stars, especially after taking a 3-2 series lead in St. Louis last Friday, the search for answers is all the more painful. Ahead of the trip to St. Louis for Game 7, Stars coach Jim Montgomery implored his team to play the way that had gotten them this far.
“It’s the same thing we’ve said since the All-Star break,” Montgomery said. “Play to our identity. Have the right attitude, and the relentless style of play.”
Bishop clearly got the message, but the rest of the team struggled to find their game against a St. Louis squad desperate to extend its seventh playoff run in the last eight years. The Blues stifled Dallas’ offense with a forecheck that the Stars couldn’t seem to solve. Shift after grinding shift seemed to end the same way, with Bishop and Dallas fighting off chance after chance. In the second and third periods, the Blues out-shot the Stars 31-4.
For all the squandering, Dallas still had chances to put the Blues away in overtime. In the first overtime period, winger Andrew Cogliano collected a rebound in front of Blues goalie Jordan Binnington and had the sprawling net minder out of position before shoveling his backhand attempt wide of the net. In the second overtime, captain Jamie Benn corralled a turnover behind the Blues net and tried to stuff a wraparound shot that skirted the goal line until Binnington kicked the puck away. Maroon scored just 91 seconds later.
"I thought we played all right in overtime; we had our chances, just didn't score," Benn said. "Unbelievable game (for Bishop). It's unfortunate we couldn't find a goal for him.”
As painful as the loss feels for the Stars and their fans, there’s some bright spots to be found. After years of suffering through Kari Lehtonen’s ill-timed goals allowed, and his first year cut short by injury, the Stars have a goaltender in Bishop who can carry the team for long periods and come up with the big save when they need it.
The Stars also have a trio of young Finns who showed signs of future brilliance. Defensemen Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell and forward Roope Hintz are just 19, 24, and 22 years old respectively, but each played solid if not brilliant stretches of hockey in their first exposure to the crucible that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. They will only stand to improve next season.
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Behind the bench, Montgomery rewarded the Stars' faith in hiring him as a coach without any professional level coaching experience. Montgomery got the job by preaching an up-tempo, modern brand of hockey that would thrive on puck possession and pressure. But when the Stars struggled to play Montgomery’s system, he was quick to modify his tactics that embraced Dallas’ ability to win games with a more defensive style of play.
Montgomery and Stars management will have a busy offseason ahead, as they make roster decisions for next year. Jason Spezza will become a free agent and has probably played his last game as a Star. A decision also needs to be made on Mats Zuccarello, who came to Dallas in a trade-deadline deal but is also due a new contract. Zuccarello played well for Dallas and quickly become a fan favorite, but he’ll likely be looking for a raise. Team management will also need to weigh the draft pick they’ll give to the New York Rangers if they re-ink Zuccarello, as part of the terms of the trade.
It’s a dark morning for Stars faithful, and the city of Dallas as a whole, who are left wanting for a sports champion yet again. But Stars fans were given reason to be hopeful this season, and the experience that Dallas’ players gained in this year’s surprising playoff run can only benefit them next season.
Hockey is a battle. It’s pain, it’s sacrifice and it’s frustration when all the pain and the sacrifice still come up short. It’s tough to focus with the wound of the season’s end still fresh, but this wound is important. It will heal. And the scars that remain and the lessons learned are the building blocks of future success. We can hardly wait for October.