The Detroit Red Wings are in for the series of their lives against head coach Dave Tippett’s skaters. Imagine trying to tame and overcome a pit bull that has nothing to anticipate but a lifetime in a cage. That is the personification of the 2007-08 Dallas Stars, a squad of tested and testy skaters who have been written off by hockey pundits more often than a steak and lobster business lunch.
Dallas has impressively confiscated their two Pacific Division rivals – defending Cup champion Anaheim and conference titlist San Jose in respective six-game series that weren’t really as close as the final scorecard and scores indicate. And while I realize that this multi-talented Detroit sextet survived a first round scare against Nashville before dismantling a pretty good Avalanche squad, they have yet to meet a team that mirror’s Dallas’ unwavering heart and enthusiasm.
The Stars are embodied by two key players – center and captain Brenden Morrow and goalie Marty Turco. Morrow almost singlehandedly carried the Stars past Vancouver in last year’s opening round. This season, he has delivered the decisive body checks, as well as set up and score key goals. None was bigger than his redirection of a Stephane Robidas shot in the fourth overtime that dispatched a pesky and favored San Jose Shark team and sent Dallas into a thankful, if sleepy, celebration.
Turco has labored long and hard to prove himself a reliable postseason puck-stopper. He finally reached his potential last season with three shutouts versus Vancouver. This year, he has repeatedly come up with big saves that have literally changed the course of multiple games.
Supporting Morrow are his linemates, center Mike Ribeiro and right winger Jere Lehtinen. The trio made life miserable for the Ducks and Sharks. Ribeiro has tremendous patience when he’s in a play-making mode, and he enables Morrow and Lehtinen to cycle down low in the offensive zone. Lehtinen, one of the team’s few links to the Stanley Cup victory in 1998-99, is a solid two-way skater who covers for the other two-thirds of the trio in the defensive zone while adding a reliable scorer’s touch around the net.
The Stars have been bolstered by the return of time-tested offensive defenseman and power play quarterback Sergei Zubov, who missed a large portion of the winter with an injury. Fellow veteran blue liners Phillipe Boucher may also follow him back into the lineup. Also, do not underrate the presence and talent of 37-year-old center Mike Modano, a part of the franchise for more than half of his life. Number Nine is another key link to those memorable Stanley Cup final and championship series.
One key intangible that could tip the series in the Stars’ direction is the prospect of expectations. While the Red Wings – Western Conference champions and in the celebrated metropolis of Hockey Town U.S.A. – are expected to win this series, possibly without breaking a sweat, the Stars are not burdened by those kinds of demands for results.
For one thing, the Dallas sporting market demands much of the Cowboys (who play the region’s most popular sport) and much less of the Rangers, Mavs and Stars. And, the Stars appear to have exorcised the early playoff ouster demons of seasons past.
Dallas’ victory over the Ducks extended their season past the first round for the first time since 2003, and their triumph over the Sharks put them into the conference finals for the first time since they last reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1999-2000. Put another way, the expectations for the Stars hardly measure up to those in cities like Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Anaheim and every Canadian outpost.
Let me also call your attention to the outstanding preparation and attention to detail imposed by the underrated Tippett and his able staff.
I call it Dallas in 7, possibly in 6 (or more) overtimes!