After Tyler Seguin won the Stanley Cup in 2011 as a Boston Bruins rookie, he glanced around at his veteran teammates and couldn’t quite relate to their tears. “I’ll never forget looking over at Big Z and Recchs and those guys,” Seguin told Men in Blazers host Roger Bennett this week, referring to Zdeno Chara and Mark Recchi, “and seeing these grown men cry and not fully understanding that.”
Seguin was 19 at the time, and his own Stanley Cup journey had just kicked off midway through that postseason with a cool three goals and three assists in his first- and second-ever playoff games. When the Bruins beat the Canucks in seven to win the title, Seguin’s vision did not exactly go blurry with emotion. “I looked at that first cigar,” he recalled with a smile, “and I said, ‘How does this work?’ That’s where my mind was.”
Nearly a decade later, he is playing for a Stanley Cup once again, this time as a member of the Dallas Stars. His Stars currently trail the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in the series, with Games 4 and 5 of the final scheduled back to back this Friday and Saturday night. As Seguin told Bennett, he now more than understands his teammates’ reactions from back then. “My first year, you don’t know the complete worth of it, and you’re like, this is all just amazing,” he said. “And now, here we are in my 10th year, and [I know] the grind it’s been to get back here.”
Since those cigars, Seguin’s career has been a series of joys and disappointments; of small comedies and middling drama; of productive bursts followed by unfortunate slumps. Which is to say: It’s been a career. (To be fair, most careers don’t involve photo shoots in which only a rubber ducky stands between you and the world, though they should!) He and the Bruins returned to the Cup final in 2013, but he scored just once in those playoffs, and Boston lost to the Blackhawks in the championship. Seguin was at a Fourth of July party on the Cape later that summer when he found out he’d been traded to the Stars—a transaction that had Boston media wondering whether the reason the Bruins were moving such a personable talented 21-year-old was because of “partying or playoffs.” (This led to one of the great sports-dad quotes of this century, Seguin’s dad defending his son by explaining: “Tyler looks to his friends for comfort and where do his friends go? They go to the local bar.”)
Seguin spent his first six years with the Stars scoring more than 72 points a season, standing out on some high-octane rosters, and racking up near-annual All-Star nods. He and Jamie Benn, then one of the league’s more underrated young forwards, got along famously and made for an exciting young core on a team that was pushing to be a contender. But during that stretch, Dallas missed the postseason three times, routinely struggled defensively and in net, and, until this year, couldn’t get past the second round even when they did make the playoffs.
Now, though, after lasting through the relentless and daily grind of life in the NHL bubble, the Stars are three wins away from what would be the first Stanley Cup for Dallas since 1999. But it’s not quite that simple. One immediate issue is that the Stars’ opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are currently one win closer, following a 5-2 Game 3 victory on Wednesday night. Another issue is one best exemplified by a moment that took place in that game: Seguin on the doorstep of a mostly wide-open net, unable to tame the puck and tie the game.
It has now been 12 straight games without a goal for Seguin, tying his longest career drought. He isn’t the only major contributor who has been offensively quiet for Dallas: Seguin’s line of him, Benn, and Alexander Radulov—who, between the three of them, combine for more than a third of the team’s salary cap—were all scoreless in Game 3, with both Radulov and Benn also being called for big penalties. In the past few weeks, as the Stars have bobbed and weaved their way through the postseason, the team’s scoreboard contributions haven’t always come from the usual suspects.
Joel Kiviranta, who unleashed a Game 7 hat trick in the second round over Colorado, had 13 NHL games to his name prior to that contest. Denis Gurianov was the Game 5 overtime hero in the Western Conference final. Another Joel, Hanley, had never scored an NHL goal when he netted one in Game 1 of the Cup final last Monday. And while Dallas is one of many NHL teams to employ a sort of two-headed-goaltender model, it hasn’t been nominal starter Ben Bishop in net for the majority of the Stars’ biggest playoff wins. It’s been his 1a backup, the 34-year-old Kazakh net minder Anton Khudobin, who carried the team through the Western Conference final and stood on his head in Game 1 against Tampa Bay.
“We are here by committee,” said Dallas interim head coach Rick Bowness in a press conference on Thursday, responding to a question about the Stars stars’ struggles to score. “That’s how we got here.” A few days earlier, Bowness had been asked about Seguin specifically. “Even though he’s winning face-offs and doing other things to get us here,” Bowness admitted, “the scorers want to score. The scorers feel that pressure to score, so he feels it, and we know it. All we can do is keep reminding: Look, you’ve got to keep doing all these little things that help us win.”
This is the type of play the Stars need from Benn-Seguin-Radulov. Winning battles, getting interior, retrieving pucks after shots, working as a five-man unit.— Matthew DeFranks (@MDeFranks) September 24, 2020
The process was there at the beginning last night, but the results weren't. Both were lacking the final 40 minutes. pic.twitter.com/Sd8FWJHgO0
It was a far more encouraging message than the one delivered by Dallas Stars brass after the last time Seguin went 12 games without a goal. That lull took place in November 2018, and several weeks later, Stars CEO Jim Lites not only went on the record with his dissatisfaction over Seguin’s (and Benn’s) performance, but he called a press conference specifically to talk about it, and there said things like: “They are fucking horseshit, I don’t know how else to put it,” and “They get their money, we expect them to not be outplayed every game we play in,” and “We are a stars-driven league, and our stars aren’t getting it done.”
When someone pointed out that, to be fair, Seguin had hit more posts and crossbars than anyone in the league, Lites said: “Wah-wah. That’s what I say about hitting posts. Get a little bit closer to the action, actually go to the spot where you score goals.” A little less than two years later, in Game 3 on Wednesday night, Seguin was there again. But the bounce was not.
Following Game 3’s loss, the Stars were uniform in noting that this was a short-memory kind of outcome, one that wasn’t to be dwelled upon. And they’re right to think that way: The past five times the Stars have trailed 2-1 in a series, they’ve won Game 4. Still, Tampa Bay’s play served to highlight exactly what Dallas sure could use more of.
In the 5-2 win, the Lightning’s top-line players—Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Brayden Point—each finished with one goal and one assist apiece. The team’s no. 1 defenseman, Victor Hedman, had a goal and an assist of his own, while also breaking up a dangerous Dallas rush early in the game. (Conversely, Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen had a totally flukey slip that directly led to Kucherov’s goal.) Andrei Vasilevskiy was steady as ever in net, while Khudobin’s hot streak finally cooled enough that he was pulled from the game. Getting vital contributions from the lower half of a team’s lineup has always been essential for postseason success, but it’s best used as a garnish. “Your best players,” head coach Jon Cooper said afterward, “need to be your best players.”
One of Tampa Bay’s best players has always been Steven Stamkos, the Lightning captain who dressed for his first bubble playoff game Wednesday after suffering from a core-body injury. Stamkos has had a glorious yet often frustrating career of his own (and, unlike Seguin, doesn’t have a happy-go-lucky rookie-season Cup to show for it). He has broken his face and his leg; been snubbed for one gold-medal-winning Olympic team and gotten too injured to play on another; been swept in the first round of the playoffs following a Presidents’ Trophy–winning season; and lost in a Cup final in which he—despite playing through an injury—drew some of the same grumbles that Seguin now receives.
“When you don’t get it done,” a red-eyed Stamkos said then, in 2014, “it’s tough to say, ‘Oh, we’ve gotten the experience, and we’ve been here now’ when you never know if you’re gonna get this chance again.” That same night, Stamkos’s then-36-year-old teammate Brenden Morrow, who had lost in a Cup final back when he was a 21-year-old NHL rookie in 2000, said something similar. “I was just young and dumb and thought it was going to happen every time. Now, I’m not sure if this is it, or if I’ll get another opportunity.” (Ultimately, it was it: Morrow retired the following season.)
Despite being kept out of every postseason game until Wednesday night, though, Stamkos showed up, took a shot that felt like the good times, and scored a goal.
It was the type of moment that made the Tampa Bay win feel even more declarative than the already showy 5-2 score would indicate. (Though it might end up being a one-time deal: Stamkos appeared to re-aggravate his injury in the game, and it’s unclear whether he’ll return going forward.) It was also the type of moment that proved how quickly a ship can be righted and a narrative can shift.
Dallas’s top line may be in the midst of an ill-timed scoring slump. Seguin may have zero goals in his past 12 games. But sometimes it only takes that one goal to get started, to get closer and closer to getting tears on your cigar.