Last week, I wrote about the high-powered Dallas Stars and how hockey fans everywhere should be cheering them on. Many of you agreed, and I'm pleased to confirm that the Stars' bandwagon is now standing-room only.
But not everyone was on board, and there were two main objections that kept coming up. The first could be summarized as "Tell me to cheer for the Dallas Stars one more time, and I will burn your house to the ground," which came pretty much exclusively from Buffalo Sabres fans. Come to think of it, I can't really argue there. That one's on me, Buffalo.
The second objection was something along the lines of: Why bother? Offense-first teams like the Stars might be fun, but they never win in the modern NHL. Dallas will put up gaudy numbers, sure, but when the playoffs come along, they'll eventually run into some boring defense-first team that will shut them down. That's how it always happens.
And while that's not entirely true -- we have seen some high-skill teams win it all over the years -- it does have a familiar ring to it. So today, let's take a look back at five teams from the past two decades that tried some variation of what the Stars are doing this season, only to see it all end in heartbreak.
It will be painful, but we need to do it. We're all Dallas Stars fans now. We might as well prepare ourselves for what's coming.
It's a trap: 1994-95 Detroit Red Wings
Why they were great: The early 1990s Red Wings were one of the best offensive teams of their generation, and by 1995 they'd led the Western Conference in scoring for four straight years. But they couldn't seem to break through in the playoffs and were coming off two straight first-round exits.
The 1995 squad was stacked with offensive talent, including future Hall of Famers Sergei Fedorov, Paul Coffey and Dino Ciccarelli, a young Nicklas Lidstrom and captain Steve Yzerman, who missed half the season with an injury but returned for the playoffs. When they hit the postseason, they looked unstoppable through the first three rounds, losing just two games as they rolled into the finals as a heavy favorite.
But then they ran into: The New Jersey Devils, a low-scoring collection of pluggers under the guidance of defensive mastermind Jacques Lemaire. They played the neutral-zone trap and relied on blatant clutch-and-grab tactics to slow down more offensively skilled teams, and the goaltending of Martin Brodeur shut the door on the few scoring chances they did allow. The high-powered Red Wings never had a chance, held to two goals or less in every game of a four-game sweep. The rest of the NHL realized that the trap could trump skill, and the dark cloud of the Dead Puck Era settled over the league, never to be dispelled.
Or at least, that's the story we all seem to have agreed on over the years. The reality is a little bit more complicated. For example, those defense-first Devils actually allowed more goals during the 1994-95 season than the high-flying Red Wings did. And while they didn't score much in that lockout-shortened season, they had led the Eastern Conference in goals scored in the previous season, so it's not like they didn't have a few guys who could put the puck in the net.
For the most part, hockey fans haven't let any of that get in the way of a good narrative. And it's certainly true that the 1995 finals were an example of defense beating offense. But this upset probably gets too much credit for ushering in the defensive era; it's not like it was some sort of unstoppable juggernaut getting derailed by an expansion team.
No, that came the next year.
Oh, rats: 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins
Why they were great: The scariest thing about the Mario Lemieux-Jaromir Jagr-led Penguins is that the teams that won Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 were almost certainly not their best of that era. That honor probably belongs to the 1992-93 squad that racked up 119 points and scored 367 goals before an ill-fated meeting with David Freaking Volek and the New York Islanders. But the 1995-96 team was close.
By that season, the neutral-zone trap had been firmly established as the defense strategy of choice across the league, and scoring had dropped nearly a full goal per game from just three seasons earlier. But the Penguins apparently missed that memo, storming their way to a league-leading 362 goals. Their individual numbers were eye-popping: 161 points from Lemieux, 149 from Jagr, 119 from Ron Francis and even 99 from newcomer Petr Nedved. The team was so stacked up front that 52 points through 66 games from a 22-year-old was considered a disappointment worthy of a midseason trade, and they shipped a young Markus Naslund to the Vancouver Canucks for bruiser Alek Stojanov.
The Penguins also gave up 284 goals, the third-most in the Eastern Conference. That kind of defensive record was supposed to be a death knell in the mid-1990s -- the only two Eastern teams that gave up more finished the season with 95 points combined -- but the Penguins' unstoppable offense more than made up for it.
But then they ran into: The Penguins rolled through the first two rounds, beating the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. But they faced a surprise in the conference finals: the Florida Panthers, then in just their third NHL season. The Panthers were low on stars and firepower, trailing Pittsburgh by more than 100 goals scored. But they were a gritty collection of veterans led by an All-Star goalie on a hot streak in John Vanbiesbrouck, and they were able to squeeze the life out of the Penguins.
Despite averaging more than 4.4 goals per game during the season, Pittsburgh couldn't managed more than three in any game of the series and saw their season end with a 3-1 loss in Game 7 on home ice, with Vanbiesbrouck making 39 saves. The Panthers went on to lose in the Stanley Cup finals to another high-scoring team, the Colorado Avalanche, but the message was sent to owners and general managers around the league: A team full of highly paid Hall of Famers could be taken down by a scrappy, and cheap, roster playing a defensive system.
The Mighty Quinn: 1998-99 Toronto Maple Leafs
Why they were great: I'll pause here just long enough for everyone to yell "homer pick!" at their screen, and then I'll explain why the 1998-99 Leafs represented just about the best chance the NHL would get to halt the defense-first era in its tracks.
Unlike the first two teams on this list, the Leafs weren't stacked with offensive talent. Beyond Mats Sundin, their top six was made up of a collection of veterans and castoffs such as Derek King, Steve "Stumpy" Thomas and Igor Korolev, and they had missed the playoffs two years in a row. But they did have one of the best goalies in the league, having signed Curtis Joseph in the offseason.
By this point in the Dead Puck Era, we all knew what a mediocre lineup paired with a star goalie meant: Play formulaic, defensive hockey, hope you could get a lucky bounce along the way, and try to win 1-0 every night. But new coach Pat Quinn had a different idea, one that was just about a complete 180 from conventional thinking. He turned the Leafs' forwards loose on offense and basically abandoned Joseph to hold down the defensive side all by himself. And it worked. The lackluster Leafs scored 268 times to lead the NHL and made the playoffs with 97 points, with Joseph standing on his head and finishing as the runner-up for the Vezina.
But then they ran into: After knocking off the Philadelphia Flyers and Penguins in the opening two rounds, the Leafs faced the Sabres in the conference finals. They caught a break when Dominik Hasek missed the first two games, and the teams split a pair of high-scoring contests. But Hasek returned for Game 3, and the Sabres swept the rest of the series to advance to the Cup finals, where I won't mention what happened because Buffalo fans will try to burn my house down again.
As for the Leafs, they continued to add pieces under Quinn and went on to a solid six-year run as quasi-contenders. But the 1998-99 team's "hang your goalie out to dry and just try to score goals" strategy never did catch on around the rest of the league, even though it very nearly worked.
The case of the disappearing offensive coach: 2002-03 Boston Bruins
Why they were great: The Bruins weren't quite as explosive as some of the other teams on our list; they finished with 245 goals, good for second in the Eastern Conference, but they weren't stacked with superstars like Lemieux, Jagr or Yzerman. (Their best player was a young Joe Thornton, who had 101 points, and we'll get back to him in a minute.)
But I wanted to include the pre-lockout Bruins, because they had an interesting name associated with them: Robbie Ftorek, who had one of the most fascinating head coaching careers in NHL history. The Bruins were his third head coaching job, and all three had several factors in common: His teams were high-scoring, they were great fun to watch and he didn't last long with them.
Apart from the occasional bench toss, Ftorek is probably best known for coaching the Los Angeles Kings when Wayne Gretzky arrived in 1988; the Kings led the NHL in goals that season with 376 but finished just 16th out of 21 teams in goals allowed. His next gig was with the Devils for two seasons beginning in 1998; the team finished second in the league in goals scored both seasons but were outside the top five for goals allowed, the only two Devils teams to finish that low between 1994 and 2004. Then it was on to Boston and yet another boost in offensive production at the expense of the defensive side. In 2003, the Bruins finished 24th in goals allowed, worst among the 16 playoff teams.
Why? Because Ftorek was one of the last of a dying breed: the offensive-minded coach. Other pro sports leagues still have that distinction, the idea that some coaches lean toward offense, while some prefer defense. Hockey doesn't really do that anymore. These days, it's just assumed that everyone is a defensive coach. They wouldn't get near the conservative NHL if they weren't.
Ftorek didn't even make it to the 2003 playoffs. He was fired with nine games left in the season, with the Bruins in danger of missing the playoffs. He's been coaching for the past decade but hasn't made it back to the NHL since. Sorry, Robbie. Maybe once you learn to love the trap.
But then they ran into: The Bruins did make the playoffs, but drew a first-round matchup with the Devils, who had led the league with just 166 goals allowed. New Jersey won easily in five, posting two shutouts along the way, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Bruins hired Mike Sullivan as their coach for 2003-04; their scoring dropped, but their defense got better and they surged to first place in the Northeast. But they lost to the Canadiens in the first round, in a series best remembered for an injured Thornton going pointless in seven games. That helped lead to him being traded early the following season, and he went on to become the first NHL player to win the MVP after being dealt midway through the season.
The worst of them all: 2009-10 Washington Capitals
Why they were great: This one just makes me sad.
The 2009-10 Capitals were what this season's Dallas Stars would look like if this season's Stars were using an infinite boost button cheat code. They scored 318 goals, well over half a goal per game more than the next-most productive team. They were just 16th in goals allowed, but that hardly mattered. Their plus-85 goals differential remains the best the league has seen since 2006. Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals, Nicklas Backstrom joined him in the 100-point club, and even Alexander Semin cracked 40 goals. They scored seven or more goals in a game five times.
The Caps rolled over the league to the tune of 121 points, running away with the Presidents' Trophy and earning home ice through the playoffs. Oh, right. The playoffs.
The Capitals drew the Canadiens in the opening round, and after an overtime loss in Game 1, they went right back to their typical dominant style. They won three straight, pumping home 17 goals in the process and taking a commanding 3-1 series lead.
And then Halak happened. The Canadiens' goalie stood on his head over the final three games of the series, stopping 131 of 134 shots and single-handedly stealing the series with one of the greatest playoff goaltending performances of all time. The Canadiens advanced; the Capitals were left to figure out what went wrong.
In hindsight, the correct answer to that question is "nothing." The Capitals were a fantastic team that ran into a searing hot goaltender. It happens. But that's where the conventional wisdom comes in. To many, the 2009-10 Caps were proof positive that flashy offense and pinball numbers might work in the regular season but that style can't win in the playoffs.
The Capitals hit a rough patch the following fall and soon decided that they had no choice but to change course. That decision led to the trap, the end of free-wheeling Capitals hockey, the eventual firing of Bruce Boudreau and the near-constant focus on Ovechkin's defensive liabilities instead of his goal-scoring gifts. It has not, as of yet, led to a Stanley Cup or to a team anywhere near as good as that 2009-10 version.
It also gives us our best cautionary example of what could come next for the Stars, and any other team that tries to play like them. Sure, it's all sorts of fun during the season. But once the playoffs arrive, you never know which goalie is going to turn into Martin Brodeur or Dominik Hasek or even Jaroslav Halak, if only for two weeks. Defense always wins in the NHL, the thinking goes, and it will go that way right up until somebody proves that thinking wrong.
Maybe the Dallas Stars will be that somebody. But if you're on the bandwagon, prepare for the worst. Fans of these five teams can tell you how it usually ends.