Credit: AP Photo
Vancouver Canucks goalie Cory Schneider (35) stops a shot as Dallas Stars' Brenden Morrow (10) and Jamie Benn (14) watch during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 22, 2012, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
In Detroit, the tradition of throwing an octopus onto the ice has become a mainstay during Red Wings playoff games. The octopus' eight tentacles represent the eight games needed back in the golden NHL days to win the Stanley Cup.
With the Dallas Stars' fate hinging on the season's final eight games, octopi could come in handy. So could any kind of other lucky charm.
With one loss (and wins by Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Jose) the Stars went from atop the Pacific Division to clinging for dear life onto the last spot in the Western Conference. Separating 3rd in the West from 10th? Two measly points. Had Dallas earned a pair of points (by winning) instead of suffering a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, they would still be reigning as kings of the Pacific, instead of the Los Angeles Kings who now assume the top slot.
Within the Vancouver game, there were two moments which seemed to epitomize what the Stars' season had been like up to this point in time. They were both brawls (there were plenty in this contest), and both looked radically different. In the first period, Jake Dowell and Vancouver's Dale Weise went at it. Dowell landed a hard left that Weise took right on the chin. Regardless, he kept coming and Dowell really cleaned house on the guy. He put up a strong night, and really did himself proud. It was almost a perfect visual of what the Stars had been like early in the season. They gave out hard shots right to the chin, yet opponents kept coming. They were, as the team's persistently-promoted hashtag states, #pesky.
Fast forward to the third period, where this time a fight broke out(gloves on, mind you) between Michael Ryder and the Cannucks' Jannik Hansen(No relation to Dale... that we know of). This time, Ryder got the early shot in to lead off. It did not go well past that, as Hansen began to deliver punches to Ryder's face. Not only did that fight symbolize the game going on at the time, where Dallas got going too little too late, but the recent stretch of games which include two blow outs and now this heartbreaker to Vancouver, who Dallas hadn't lost to this year. Lately it seems like Dallas is going the way of Michael Ryder, getting an early shot in but ending up socked in the face repeatedly until it's too late to recover.
The team's 2012 destiny hinges on the next eight games. Five of the Stars' last eight games will be on the road, including trips to Vancouver and San Jose. The last game of the year will be at home, but it will be against the West-leading St. Louis Blues. Should the West continue to be as rocky as it has been up to now, the Stars could be facing a must-win game against the conference's best team.
The team's playoff status could also mean a lot for the future of Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, who has drawn some criticism in the past for his choices. Nieuwendyk belted out a strong statement during February's trade deadline, making only a minor move that brought back draft picks -- while signaling to the locker room and fan base he was happy with the hand he had.
However, as the end of the season draws ever near, questions arise about whether new blood could have bolstered a club which faces tough competition after losing three of four. There's no real telling how short GM Joe's rope is, but one thing is for sure: if the Stars get close but not close enough for the playoffs, the decision not to bring in more talent will be heavily scrutinized. All the chips are in the middle of the table, and we're about to find out if Nieuwy ends up a rich man or flat broke.
Also a factor: What would another late-season stumble do to the fan base, newly energized by the sweet, beckoning smell of the playoffs filling their lungs? The crowds at the AAC have been great lately. It's no secret that, excusing the band of not-so-lovable losers occupying Jerry World in Arlington, attendance in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is heavily predicated on one thing: winning. If you win, people will flood in and you'll rake in at the gate. Fall off, and the people will abandon you like you never existed.
It's one of the worst things about fans, but it's true. If the Stars can't sustain the magic and end up out of the post season, there is a strong possibility the interest level in hockey among the general DFW fan will plunge once again. For a team that has a lot going for it, and deserved a lot more support than they were getting until recently, that's nothing less than a kick right in the sensitive areas.
At the end of January, I wrote about the team's prospects for the rest of the year. Diagnosis? "...I think 10th is roughly the best Stars fans can hope for this season. They may put together a run near the end of the year and sneak in as the eighth seed, but it's unfortunately not especially realistic." Seeing Dallas streak into the 3rd seed was a very pleasant surprise. But as the season's final leg comes to pass, I fear greatly that my midway point assessment was correct. It won't be anywhere close to how I saw it happening, but reality could be crashing down on our hockey noggins just like the fists of Jannek Hansen did on Michael Ryder.
With so much on the line for so many involved, we can only hope the Stars live up to their "Pesky" moniker and find a way. The overrated (But championship-winning) NFL head coach Bill Parcells once said about the playoffs, "Just get in." I couldn't think of a more perfect way to see it, so let it be so. Just get in, Dallas. The rest can fall where it may. Just get in, and you have a chance to do something special. Just get in, because it's extremely scary to think about what happens if you're out.
Eight games, sixteen possible points, and only one playoff seed needed to play on. Who's got the octopus?