DALLAS — On the heels of his team's soul-crushing loss that ended their promising post-season so suddenly, Stars head coach Lindy Ruff matter-of-factly put the team's 5-4 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks Sunday night into perspective.
"Sometimes hockey's cruel," he said. "It was cruel, really cruel, to a group of guys that worked as hard as they possibly could tonight."
"Cruel" is going from having a seemingly insurmountable 4-2 lead and forcing a decisive Game 7... to being out of the playoffs in less than five minutes of ice time.
Two minutes and 47 seconds into overtime, Nick Bonino found the back of the net and the Stars' post-season crashed down in an instant.
“It happened so fast, so it’s a bit of a shock," said Stars captain Jamie Benn, "but I’m proud of our guys. We battled hard all year. We battled hard to get into the playoffs, and I thought we played a pretty good series against a pretty good team.”
In the third period, Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau pulled his goalie relatively early and it paid big dividends. Bonino scored with 2:10 left in regulation with the extra attacker on the ice. That pulled the Ducks to within a goal of Stars at 4-3.
"I knew if we got one, then anything could happen," Boudreau said. "We’ve had a year that everything like this has happened to us. You’re always hopeful and you believe and you’re talking on the bench to believe, but deep down you don’t really think it’s going to happen."
It did happen.
With less than 30 seconds left and the Anaheim goalie on the bench again, Ducks began crowding Dallas netminder Kari Lehtonen. In the scrum around his crease, he somehow lost his stick.
Then... as he laid out flat in front of the goal... the puck squirted away to Devante Smith-Pelly, who easily lifted it over Lehtonen with just 24 seconds left in the game, evening the score at 4-all.
“I just was standing at the side of the net," said Smith-Pelly. "There were guys whacking at it and it slid to me and I had a little bit of time there to flip it in.”
That goal took all the air out of the room, stunning the sellout crowd of more than 19,000. After the regulation horn sounded, the Stars walked back to their room in stunned silence.
Ruff said he told his bunch to re-focus and prepare for the fight. But it was too much for the young bunch to overcome.
In spite of the gut-wrenching loss, the Stars gained invaluable experience that could serve them well moving forward.
"We have a young team with young playoff experience and we got ourselves in a situation where we didn’t need to put ourselves, but our fans can be awfully proud of those guys that stepped on the ice and I was awfully proud of our fans," Ruff said. "I don’t think half of them sat down the whole game. This building was something that helped push these guys, and you could just feel the energy. That’s something special.”