EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Inside a lounge at the JW Marriott usually reserved for their meals and meetings, the Dallas Stars enjoyed a moment.
It wasn’t an all-out party because they are still four wins away from winning the Stanley Cup. It was a low-key celebration of reaching the final, a significant accomplishment for a team that has been through some real challenges in recent years.
“To watch the staff, the players — some guys that have never lived this before — it was very exciting,” general manager Jim Nill said. “There’s guys that have been on this team for a long time and never been this far. It’s an exciting time for them. But we do know that there is one more step here yet.”
The steps to this point included plenty of stumbles. Remember when CEO Jim Lites ripped captain Jamie Benn and top center Tyler Seguin for being “terrible?” That was December 2018. Or how about this past December, when the Stars abruptly fired coach Jim Montgomery for unprofessional conduct?
Add in being eliminated in a heartbreaking double-overtime Game 7 loss in the second round last season to eventual champion St. Louis, and things haven’t been easy for Dallas on or off the ice. That adversity is one major reason the franchise is in its first final since 2000.
Seguin said the Stars believe they are are never out of a game.
“There’s just been so much stuff that’s happened to us that we always seem to rise to the occasion,” he said. “Because of those experiences as a group, we have that confidence, that composure and that ability to get the job done when we need it most.”
Not terrible for a team that made the playoffs just three times in the past 11 seasons. Since Nill took the reins in 2013, the Stars have four playoff appearances and are now in the final on their fourth coach in as many seasons after Rick Bowness took over for Montgomery.
Perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten this far if Montgomery were the coach, or if Nill picked one of his other two assistants with previous experience to take over. He chose the 65-year-old hockey lifer as the interim replacement because Bowness had been around an extra year. It has worked out.
“It’s been a crazy year for all of us and I’m sure especially him,” Benn said. “To come in halfway through the year and jump right back into a head coaching role, it can’t be that easy, but he’s done a great job with us.”
It wasn’t easy for Benn or Seguin to take criticism from Lites and others about their play and their big-ticket contracts. When they helped Dallas make the 2019 playoffs, that run ended with Patrick Maroon ‘s goal for the Blues in the second overtime — one victory shy of the Western Conference final.
“You learn from that, you get in those situations and that makes you stronger, makes you hungrier and that’s where we’re at,” Nill said. “You’ve got to learn to lose before you win.”
Barry Trotz knows that well. The New York Islanders coach stepped into his previous job with Washington after the Capitals had absorbed six early playoff exits, and Trotz had three of his own before winning the Stanley Cup in 2018.
“There’s very few teams in any sport (that) have sort of put a group together and they’ve won a championship right away without maybe a little bit of failure on the way,” Trotz said. “How you focus with defeat, how you pick yourself up after a tough loss or a game that doesn’t go your way individually or collectively — that’s what builds winners or champions.”
To become champions, the Stars still need to win one more series. Barclay Goodrow and the Tampa Bay Lightning could next be up next.
“They’re in the Stanley Cup Final for a reason,” said Goodrow, who played against Dallas the past several seasons while with San Jose. “They defend hard. They just find ways to win. It’s not a fluke why they made it to the finals.”
After being outshot 166-118 by Vegas in the second round and leaning on goaltender Anton Khudobin to make some timely saves, the Stars aren’t apologizing for moving on to the final. Nill agreed with Goodrow that “it’s not a fluke,” and now his team gets to keep proving that.
“I definitely believe we deserve to be here,” he said. “Our guys have stuck with it. They believe in themselves, they’re hardened and they’re resilient and that’s what you have to be in the playoffs. You’re not going to make it very far in the playoffs if you’re not resilient, and we have a resilient group of guys.”
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