Winners or shootout hams? We'll soon know real Stars

Updated: April 27, 2006, 7:36 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

DALLAS -- Now we find what the Dallas Stars are made of.

Neither plastic nor paper will work.

If the Stars don't come back from this 0-2 hole in the first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche, they deservedly will go down as the first team in NHL history whose regular-season accomplishments were artificially and misleadingly enhanced by shootouts.

Mike Modano
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMike Modano has a goal and an assist in two games against the Avalanche.

Dallas was 12-1 in shootouts and won the Pacific Division by 13 points over the Sharks, who were a league-worst 1-7 in extra-extra time.

Absolutely, there have been many faux teams that could pile up points in the relatively soft regular season, especially cleaning up on the dregs, but then proved to be of insufficient heart, character and resiliency for the high-intensity, high-pressure milieu of the playoffs.

But this will be the first time the shootout could be cited as an asterisk.

And this is coming from someone who supports the shootout, while acknowledging it's a contrivance -- a contrivance that is no more than a means of awarding a second point to one of the teams and providing the paying customers with a win/loss verdict. The debate can wait for another day about whether one way to tweak the system is to award three points for an regulation victory and make every game -- and not just those decided in overtime or in the shootout -- worth three points.

At least in the first two games against Colorado at the American Airlines Center, the Stars for the most part seemed to be taking that que sera, sera attitude that can be part of the shootout mind-set.

How else do you explain giving up a short-handed goal on the tip by Avalanche defenseman Brett Clark that tied Game 2 at 4 with only 2:04 left in regulation? That's inexcusable, unfathomable, even a bit incredible, given the situation. In a wildly entertaining game of incredible momentum swings that probably wouldn't have been possible in the playoff hockey of the Old NHL, the Stars ended up losing 5-4 on Joe Sakic's goal in overtime. On Tuesday, they traveled to Denver on a charter, a wing and a prayer that a dreaded home-ice disadvantage will both tighten up the Avalanche -- and embolden Dallas.

Beyond Clark's goal, there are a lot more examples to toss in the mix, but the fact is, after getting blown out 5-2 in Game 1, the Stars' four-goal, second-period surge in Game 2 has been about all Dallas to show for -- and show off from -- the series.

It has been far from all Marty Turco's fault, but his work against the Avalanche has done nothing to dispel the notion he doesn't welcome and thrive in postseason pressures. Note the careful choice of words there. The term "choke" often is applied by those who haven't shed serious sweat in years (if ever), or sometimes even by former players who weren't exactly beacons of prime-time success, either. Unless what happens on the ice is a glaring example of a nervous breakdown -- and the evidence rarely is that definitive -- the "choke" test can only be taken by looking in a mirror.

At this point, though, he is in danger of being shoved farther into the "Yes, but …" goaltending clubhouse. As in: "Yes, but … what has he done in the playoffs?"

"There are no more excuses, and that goes for myself," Turco said after Game 2.

Bill Guerin is one of the highest-paid players in the league, at $6.7 million, but he isn't even getting on the ice on the power play and -- to make matters worse -- has a boot-camp haircut because he lost a bet when his beloved Boston College Eagles lost to Wisconsin at the Frozen Four.

He has to step up, and coach Dave Tippett needs to show more faith in him for that to happen.

With the last change, Tippet usually had Mike Modano out against Sakic in the the first two games. While Modano was better in Game 2, Sakic ended up getting credit for the overtime goal that set an NHL record for all-time OT goals with seven.

It's a fair indication of Sakic's ability to elevate his game in the playoffs and to come through at the absolute key moment. Modano had the one terrific postseason, in 2000, when the Stars lost to the Devils in the finals, and while he's short of a postseason flop, he certainly hasn't been the compelling leader -- whether that's just by example -- often enough to be considered a playoff star.

This isn't all about the Stars' failures, of course.

Colorado has been smarter, more poised, and more resilient. The Stars haven't been able to get shots through because of the Avalanche's shot-blocking prowess, and they also have had trouble getting the puck through the neutral zone without turning it over.

The Avalanche took advantage of their chances.

"You can't win in the playoffs if you give up five goals," Tippett said after Game 2. "You can slice that a lot of ways -- coverage, goaltending. We're giving up five goals. That is a hard obstacle to overcome."

The Stars didn't get enough chances -- at least if that translates to making the extra adjustment to get shots that can get through the Avalanche traffic and to a still-suspect goaltender.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that as much as the Avalanche are trying to prop up goalie Jose Theodore and hope that his game and swagger can return, Colorado won both games while getting nothing better than OK goaltending. Though he did make tough stops in the third period Monday night, including with the Avalanche skating two men short, and Sakic even called that performance "unbelievable," the fact is he has looked like nothing more then a Generic Goaltender -- and that's not good enough to get a team deep in the playoffs.

(By the way, time-out for a pet peeve about sports hyperbole: Not to pick on Sakic, but it would have been "unbelievable" if, say, an 108-year-old Amelia Earhart landed her plane at Love Field on Monday night and got to the American Airlines Center in time for the opening faceoff. Despite the use of the term, especially in sports journalism and broadcasting for such noteworthy accomplishments as shooting 52 percent from the floor, not much truly is "unbelievable.")

Theodore will have to be better, especially for this sort of Colorado team, which relies more on a lunchbucket mentality than any of the Avalanche playoff forces of the past.

Clark, for example, was a journeyman who spent most of his time in the AHL before his poise with the puck and unflappability made him a valuable commodity in the New NHL. At the beginning of the season, some looked at Andrew Brunette's presence on the top line with Sakic as a sign of how the franchise had slipped. Good player, but a first-liner? Now he's a savvy complement to Sakic and Milan Hejduk, who seems to have rediscovered his touch and confidence in time for the postseason. Plus, the addition of 20-year-old Wojtek Wolski, who tore up the OHL before rejoining the Avs for the postseason, and Avs coach Joel Quenneville's deployment of him at center on the second line, was risky -- but has paid dividends.

In a few days, perhaps all this will seem a ridiculous overanalysis and overreaction to two games.

The Stars have proved themselves capable of winning on the road, and even without resorting to the shootouts to do it.

Though their problems in the first two games variously were chalked up to both a lack of burning desire and a mass squeezing of the sticks, which at times can seem contradictory because the second results from a recognition of the stakes involved, everyone probably can agree on:

If the Stars don't answer the challenge, they'll take another step back in the competition for attention and affection in the Dallas Metroplex sports scene. And even the guys with the green wigs and green-and-white painted faces might indulge in crossover dribbles to the Mavericks.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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