In the end, the Dallas Stars just lost to a better team in the St. Louis Blues. There’s no shame in that, just hurt… and understandably so right after their Game 7 defeat, when Patrick Maroon scored in double overtime.
It must hurt, because the Stars effectively came within a single shot of moving on, before losing 2-1 to the Blues. Of course, it also must hurt because the path to the Stanley Cup Final is as clear as ever before, with every division winner having been eliminated in Round 1.
Blues Are Legitimate Contenders
In many respects, the Blues are legitimate championship favorites, though. After all, since early January, at which point they were in last place in the entire league, the Blues played at an 118-point pace. That total would have been good enough to win the Presidents’ Trophy in four of the six seasons since the last lockout in 2012.
Granted, as the Tampa Bay Lightning proved, being the best team during the regular season doesn’t matter much come the playoffs. Nevertheless, the potential of the Stars’ second-round opponents had been clear since the summer, which Blues general manager Doug Armstrong arguably “won.”
Despite a slow start out of the gates this season, that potential was on full display over the second half. Combine the Blues’ undeniable talent and edge in depth with their battle-tested playoff-readiness, which they’ve had ever since they first turned things around, and it’s hard to measure up. The Blues have faced adversity game-in, game-out since January, unlike the Lightning, who didn’t know what to do but whiff at their first legitimate sniff of it all season.
Now, consider how close the Stars came to moving on.
Blues Barely Beat Stars
Of course, the fact the Blues outshot the Stars decisively 54-30 points to the home side in the Game 7 in question being better-equipped to make a run of it past Round 2. Perhaps Stars fans can find some solace in that and gratitude that goalie Ben Bishop was no worse for wear following a third-period scare in Game 6.
So, they can rest easy, knowing their Vezina Trophy-caliber goalie is healthy. And, seeing as Bishop seemed to be at the top of his game, there can be no excuses about the loss, just like, had the Stars won, there could be no excuses on the part of the Blues.
Goaltending is a critical part of a team, and, had the Stars won on the strength of Bishop’s play, they would have outplayed the Blues overall, regardless of the shot count. It wasn’t meant to be, though. The Blues’ best players were simply better than the top Stars, with possible exception to Jordan Binnington. When you give up a single goal in four-plus periods though, it’s not as if he was a weak link or even weaker than Bishop. He just had less work.
Zuccarello Sees His Star Rise
Ultimately, in spite of how close the Stars came to pulling off the upset, it’s clear they should have no regrets. That sentiment applies to just about everyone in the organization, including general manager Jim Nill, who hit a home run at the trade deadline when he acquired Mats Zuccarello.
All the pending Norwegian free agent did was co-lead the Stars in playoff scoring with 11 points. And, while it may still sting, all the Stars gave up to get him were conditional second and third-round picks, with the second staying as is, instead of becoming a first had they beaten the Blues to reach Round 3. It’s one silver lining in a season full of them.
Granted, the third can still become a first for the New York Rangers if the Stars re-sign Zuccarello. And many might assume that’s what will happen. Whether it’s a smart move for the Stars to re-sign Zuccarello or not, it’s undeniable he helped them reach Round 2 for the first time since 2016 (when they coincidentally lost to the Blues in another seventh game).
That had also been the last time the Stars made the playoffs. So, after two consecutive non-playoff seasons, the future looks significantly brighter, complete with their first-round pick in the upcoming draft left intact. There are worse positions for a franchise to be in, even if right now it seems like it’s only on the losing end of a hard-fought seven-game series that, with one bounce, just as easily could have gone their way. That’s the whole point, though. The Stars will be back sooner rather than later and you don’t need to be an astrologer to see it.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.