The Dallas Morning News
Dallas Stars 2019-20 VHA Season Round-Up
By Frank DeMatthews
DALLAS, TX – In mid-January, with two months left to go in the regular season, the Dallas Stars found themselves in a familiar position – at the bottom of the standings, third from last in the VHA. Owner Tim Gaglardass finally had enough. GM Jill Nim and the entire front office alongside Rich Bonus and his coaching staff were given their marching orders in what can only be described as the most wholesale changing of the guard since the franchise relocated from Minnesota to Dallas in 1993.
Gaglardass instructed the incoming front office team led by GM Dandy McFerry to “burn it all down” and retool from scratch, with the goal of developing a young franchise that could compete for a Western conference playoff berth in two or three years. And that's exactly what they set out to do, trading away mainstays and clubhouse leaders such as Ivan Provorov, Phillip Danault, Nikita Zadorov and Brad Marchand in rapid succession during the run-up to the trade deadline.
What nobody expected – what nobody saw coming – is that the supposed dismantling ended up bringing together a special group of players. In came Ivan Barbashev, in came Gavin Bayreuther, in came Alex DeBrincat, Vince Dunn, Jeff Carter and Bryan Little. Alex Steen was signed to a team-friendly one year deal. And just like that, the 2019-20 Dallas Stars were barely recognizable.
Immediately following the trade deadline, Captain Aaron Ekblad called a players-only meeting and they decided together that against all odds, they would do whatever it took to make the playoffs. Not in two years. Not next year. But right now. “Yeah, I just told the guys, everybody expects us to lose,” explained Ekblad, “So let's go out there and screw with their plans.”
Players like Johan Larsson, Michael Grabner, Matt Roy and Ryan Graves took on more significant roles, and each of the new guys seemed to jell together instantaneously under new head coach Huw McPoo's defense-first team system. The Stars went on an absolute tear over the final two months of the season, winning nine in a row in one stretch. With three games left in the regular season, and still two teams standing between them and the playoffs, the Stars were faced with the seemingly impossible task of taking no fewer than five of a possible six points against the top two teams in the West – Calgary and Los Angeles – and the Ducks of Anaheim, holders of the eighth seed.
After an overtime loss in LA and a win over Anaheim, it all came down to the last game of the season against the conference-leading Flames. The Stars and Flames took a 2-2 tie into overtime, which solved nothing. Matt Duchene stepped up in the win-or-go-home shootout, clinching a most unlikely playoff spot for the Dallas Stars.
“If you had asked me what the odds were of our team making the playoffs back in January, I would have told you basically zero,” said McFerry. “I mean, from a front-office perspective, we were already looking to next year. I’ve got to hand it to Coach Huw and the boys, though. They really showed us what they're made of these last couple of months.”
Dallas entered the playoffs as underdogs pitted against a Calgary Flames team that had dominated the league defensively over the course of the regular season. As though the odds weren't long enough, both starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and backup Charlie Lindgren were nursing injuries, leaving AHL goalie Christopher Gibson – who hadn't played a VHA game all year – as Dallas's starter heading into the playoffs.
Game 1 lived up to its billing as a defensive battle, with Calgary skating to a 1-0 victory on home ice. Game 2 introduced something different, though. That spunky, never-say-die Stars team showed up and took home ice advantage away from Calgary with a tightly-contested 4-2 victory at the Saddledome.
With the series shifting to the American Airlines Center in Dallas for Game 3 the Stars took a 2-0 lead into the third period, but the Flames came storming back with two unanswered and the game was headed for overtime with the Stars on the penalty kill. Dallas killed off that penalty, and midway through that overtime session, Tyson Jost jumped on an Ekblad rebound to put the game away. Suddenly, all the momentum was on the Stars' side. It showed in Game 4 too, as Dallas rushed out to an early lead, chasing Flames starter David Rittich, en route to an easy 7-4 victory.
With a 3-1 series lead and all the momentum behind them, the Stars got some more good news with the return of Fleury and Lindgren. But in game 5, Rittich was determined not to repeat his poor performance of Game 4, helping his team secure a crucial 4-3 overtime win when a blocked shot landed right on Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane's stick in front of the net and he made no mistake with it. If Rittich was good in Game 5, though, he was dazzling in Game 6. With the series headed back to Dallas, the Stars pummeled the Calgary goaltender with 31 shots, yielding only 11 to the Flames. But Rittich stood on his head, stopping 29 of those 31 (including a pair of in-tight chances from Little and Duchene in the final minute) to earn the game's first star honours and steal the 3-2 win for his team.
It came down to a decisive Game 7, where it became all-too apparent the Flames were, indeed, the better team. Calgary outshot Dallas 24-7 through two and staved off a third-period surge to take the game 2-0 and the series with it after winning three successive elimination games. Rittich's otherworldly performances in Games 6 and 7 backstopped a stingy Calgary defense to the series win, where they would go on to meet the Winnipeg Jets in an all-Canadian conference semi-final.
“At first, you're just happy to make the playoffs,” said Stars forward Duchene. “But then to have the series we did against Calgary – I mean, that was the most fun I've ever had playing hockey in my entire career. I just wish it wasn't over so soon.”
McFerry is now faced with an off-season of difficult decisions. “Obviously, we have a lot of picks coming up in this year's entry draft, whenever that happens,” said McFerry. “But I think we learned a lot about this team and its compete level in that series against Calgary. So I don't think we're looking at a total makeover any more. I think we're maybe two or three pieces away from being a legitimate contender as early as next year.”
Asked what those pieces might be, McFerry played his cards close to his chest. With a wink and a smile he said, “We’ll just have to wait and see.” Considering the Stars scored just twice on 55 chances against the Flames in Games 6 and 7, it's safe to say this team could use a bit more finish on its top two lines. Perhaps some of that will come from the kids. Young forwards Cody Glass, Sam Steel, Dillon Dube and Morgan Frost look poised to contribute at the VHA level sooner rather than later. To what degree they can become the missing pieces McFerry is seeking for the 2020-21 season, only time will tell.