FRISCO, Texas -- How fast can you grow up in a week?
If you're a father, you know the answer is "way too fast," but what if you're a hockey coach, watching your "kids" perform under postseason pressure?
Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff wasn't quite sure what to expect when the playoffs started last week. His team was a bunch of toddlers, learning how to crawl in the postseason. Meanwhile, the Anaheim Ducks were all grown up and ready to make a push toward the Stanley Cup. They looked like the experienced team in Games 1 and 2. They were at home in those games, doing the little things late and taking advantage of Stars mistakes to get a 2-0 series lead. Then, young goalie Frederik Andersen made enough big saves to help his team win.
But Andersen looked nervous and a bit rattled in Dallas. So did some of his teammates. Four games in, and with Game 5 set for Friday night in Anaheim, California, the Stars are doing a lot more than crawling. They seem comfortable in these playoffs, unfazed by the physical play or the pace of the game. In fact, they seem content to push that pace, using their speed to create an advantage. Maybe they're using their inexperience to their advantage, too. The Stars spoke about having fun. They talked about enjoying the moment. But don't take that to mean they're content to simply be here.
There are enough big kids on this team to keep everyone in line, and 35-year-old Shawn Horcoff, fresh off his best game in the series, seemed to be sending a message to his teammates and the media at the Stars' optional practice Thursday.
"Our motto here isn’t just to come into the playoffs and get our toes wet and save it for next year and years after," Horcoff said. "The older guys realize that it’s not that easy. There’s a lot of parity in the league, and it’s tough to make the playoffs. You have to make the most of all your chances, and that’s what we’re trying to do now.
"We’re a team that is gaining experience as we go, game by game. We are learning from our mistakes and figuring out what kind of game we need to play in the playoffs."
Horcoff knows these opportunities don't come around very often. And now that it's a best-of-three series, Horcoff and the Stars believe they can pull off the upset and extend their first playoff appearance in six seasons a little longer.
To do that, the Stars must prove that the type of performance they put forth in Games 3 and 4 at home can translate in Anaheim. The Ducks hope their experience and crowd are enough to seize momentum back from Dallas. But they're facing a different team now, one that isn't likely to be intimidated by the surroundings.
“I think now we’re facing an opportunity where we can create some pressure in their building," Ruff said. "I think some of that apprehension that we had in that first game, a little bit to start the second game, I think that they know what to expect now."
And that's another huge, physical effort from a Ducks team that must figure out who is starting in net and whether captain Ryan Getzlaf can return to the lineup for Game 5. But no matter what the answers are to those questions, the Stars should expect a spirited Ducks effort from the opening faceoff -- and a crowd that will be fired up.
The difference: Dallas won't be surprised by either.
"We’re playing loose here," Stars forward Alex Chiasson said. "There’s a lot of guys here with no playoff experience and we don’t think much. We just go out and play. Hopefully, we can keep that mentality and bring it out there."
It's a team that's growing up quickly.