Tuesday April 22nd, 2008

The confetti cannon went off early and the crowd at the American Airlines Center partied as if the home team had just captured the Stanley Cup, not just a first round series. You can hardly blame the fans in Dallas. It's been a long time since the Stars have gotten this far.

A regular season beast, the Stars had developed a reputation as a playoff paper tiger after six seasons of postseason failure, their one-and-done performances each season since 2003-04 as much a fixture of spring in Dallas as bluebonnets and tornados.

So the victory over the Anaheim Ducks, sealed by Sunday's 4-1 win, was more than just a step toward this year's championship. It was about earning back a small portion of the emotional equity the team had squandered in the community.

Small, because this team still teeters on the edge of irrelevance in the local sporting scene, a shocking drop from the prominence the Stars enjoyed in the late '90s when they trailed only the Cowboys in popularity. The local television ratings are abysmal. The Stars actually issued a press release celebrating a 1.4 share that FSN Southwest received for Game 3 of the series with the defending Stanley Cup champions. Trumpeted as the highest numbers of the season, the share translates into just 33,000 homes.

Game 6 might have been the most-watched cable program of the night but, to put it into perspective, it was beaten by an over-the-air re-run of Mission Impossible.

Clearly, this is a work-in-progress.

But you have to say this for the Stars: they are the most likeable bunch the franchise has iced since its glory years, a fact that finally should begin to take hold with local fans as the team advances. Although Cup veterans Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and (when healthy) Sergei Zubov are on their last legs, they provide a bridge between the '99 Cup and today's more aggressive, if slightly less talented group. Led by elite power forward Brenden Morrow, the league's best two-way agitator Steve Ott, long-time favorite Stu Barnes and revived castoffs like Mike Ribeiro and Stephane Robidas, this is a young, gritty squad that offers something for everyone.

By advancing, the Stars might finally get a chance to show off that fact to the bandwagon fans who jumped -- or in some cases, were pushed -- off during the last decade by failures, dull play and a perception that the front office was somewhat less than in tune with their needs.

The series win over the Ducks lets the Stars take a step on the road to recovery. For the next one, they could use a little help from Calgary. If the Flames upset San Jose in Game 7, the Stars earn home ice against Colorado. The Avalanche are a familiar nemesis that harkens back to the days of Hitch, Hatch and the Eagle. That would make for a compelling matchup, both in terms of timing (the one-hour difference to the Mountain zone would ensure a better TV slot), and the longstanding, if somewhat dormant, rivalry. Brian Campbell, Evgeni Nabokov and Joe Thornton may be major awards contenders, but Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote are the opponents that Dallas fans can really sink their fangs into.

If it's the Avs, it'll be an interesting conflict. The teams split their four-game season series, with each sweeping at home. Game 1 would likely be delayed until Saturday afternoon because of scheduling conflicts with the Mavericks and a Van Halen concert. Saturday also offers minimal viewing competition. The Mavs are off, and the Texas Rangers play that evening. No word yet on when Mission Impossible airs again.

If the Sharks douse the Flames, it'll make for a tougher sell, but a fast, physical series.

You can't blame the majority of fans in Dallas for wanting to see something concrete before they invest their time and hope in this club. But the Stars have finally given them a reason to believe...and there's plenty of room on the bandwagon these days.

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