EDMONTON — Can you picture your team winning games the way Dallas wins them? Have you seen, in your team, what you see every night from these Dallas Stars?
The Stars have four lines that look identical when they don’t have the puck, and 18 skaters who approach every puck battle with a ferocity that had one NHL voice tell me this on Wednesday:
“Dallas does not play like they want to win. They play like they need to win.”
Could Auston Matthews play without the puck the way Jamie Benn is playing when he doesn’t have it? If Connor McDavid was playing with one hand, the way the injured Tyler Seguin is, would he be able to make the same impact defensively that Seguin has for the Stars?
This, hockey fan is what winning looks like.
The way Dallas plays, like it or not, is the way St. Louis played last year, and Washington the year before that.
They don’t want to win. Like Ovechkin, like Pietrangelo, like Ray Bourque and Dave Andreychuk back in the day, they need to win.
“When you have guys who have been in the league for so long — and a lot of us haven’t won a Stanley Cup — you realize how hard it is,” said Stars’ Blake Comeau, a 34-year-old journeyman winger. “I’ve been in the league for 14 years. I’ve never been to a Final.”
Comeau has played 852 NHL games for six different organizations, missing the playoffs more often than he’s made them. A second-round pick of the Islanders back in 2004, he has only been past Round 1 twice in his career.
“Our approach is, we may never be in another Final or have another chance to win a Stanley Cup,” he said. “You just never know.
“There are a lot of us who aren’t taking anything for granted. We’ve been around a long time. We know how hard it is.”
So perhaps Elias Pettersson simply cannot grasp that scale of desire, at age 21. Maybe Quinn Hughes, no matter how skilled, will not be able to match Jamie Oleksiak’s battle level until he has more time in the league.
As a team, what Dallas has is what Dave Tippett is trying to find in Edmonton, or Geoff Ward in Calgary. That they have not yet found it is clear, observed by their respective playoff flame-outs this year.
There is a commitment to sacrifice the Stars have. A realization that wining the hundreds of little battles within the game will result in winning the larger battle on the scoreboard.
There is a physicality that saw the Vegas forwards spending an inordinate amount of time on their backsides around Anton Khudobin, and the Golden Knights defencemen knocked on the seats of their pants in front of Robin Lehner. Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer admitted after the series that Dallas owned the net-fronts at both ends of the rink, not a small admission for a losing coach.
Has anyone ever said that about Ottawa? About Montreal?
That Benn’s line knows Roope Hintz’ line or Joe Pavelski’s line can be counted on to chip in some offence takes the pressure off the top line to cheat for goals. So they can defend first, and remain patient that their chances will come.
The result is, all four lines look a lot like each other.
“Without the puck we want every line to be the same (and) committed to keeping that puck out of our zone,” said head coach Rick Bowness, the ultimate hockey lifer who has never been this close to a Cup as a head coach. “When we get possession of it, different skills and speeds take over … but without the puck you have to be on the same page.
“It helps each line going on the ice. Sometimes you get different guys out there. If we all look the same, it just helps to have that confidence in each other that we aren’t going to break. And we can score goals.
“It’s a real confident group right now. They believe in each other, they’re playing for each other.”
It defines team concept, what Dallas is doing. And we’d challenge you to name a Cup winner that didn’t lay claim to the same qualities that Bowness just listed.
It is why, when I hear an NHL player say, “Once we’re out, I never watch any other teams play,” I think to myself, “Then how are you going to figure out what it takes to be one of the guys playing, not one of the guys who is not watching?”
You can only hope, Canadian fan, that your team’s players are watching this.
This is what winning looks like. It’s right there in black and green.