When the Stars open the first round of the playoffs Wednesday night in Nashville, prepare for a car crash. Welcome to the postseason.
Dallas is back in the postseason for the first time in three years, drawing the Central Division rival Predators by securing the first wild card with a win over Minnesota on Saturday night. Playoff hockey is renowned for being one of the best spectacles in sports. Almost every team can win on a given night, hot goaltenders can steal games and win rounds, and then there's sudden-death overtime.
"First 10 minutes of every game, it's like hopping on the highway at full speed and it's just cars crashing into each other everywhere," Stars forward Jason Spezza said. "Extra amped up, there's not a whole lot of structure in the game."
The Stars are light on playoff experience this season.
They have a rookie head coach in Jim Montgomery. As many as seven players (Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell, Roope Hintz, Jason Dickinson, Tyler Pitlick, Taylor Fedun and Justin Dowling) could make their playoff debut in raucous Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday night. Their backup goalie has played just one playoff game. And only two Stars have won a Stanley Cup (Ben Lovejoy and Tyler Seguin).
"Guys would be dead if we played that way the entire season," said Lovejoy, who won the Cup with the Penguins in 2016. "It's not possible. Every inch of ice is difficult. Every guy is giving absolutely everything they have every shift. You leave games physically and emotionally absolutely exhausted. It's fun, but it's stressful as hell. It is just an incredibly different experience that regular-season hockey."
Said Seguin, who won the Cup with the Bruins in 2011: "Whole new season. Emotion's higher. The hits are harder. The goals are bigger celebrations. It's the best time of year."
The playoffs become a much tighter game on the defensive end. While the average goals per game were actually higher in the playoffs than in the regular season (2.95 in the postseason vs. 2.92 in the regular season), playoff games last longer than regular season ones.
On a per 60 minutes basis, only eight of the 16 playoff teams last year scored less than 2.25 goals at 5-on-5. During the regular season, four of the 31 teams scored less than 2.25 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.
"Guys are doing things that they can't do every shift during a regular-season game," Lovejoy said. "You're finishing every single check. You're blocking every shot, every pass, every dump. Everything is so important."
With their midseason acquisitions, the Stars aimed to add playoff experience. Andrew Cogliano arrived with 64 career playoff games. Lovejoy has played in 63. Mats Zuccarello has played in 60. Only Spezza's 69 playoff games are more than the newest Stars.
"It's human emotion," Spezza said. "You can't just create desperation out of nowhere. That's why you see teams that are fighting not to get eliminated have these big comebacks and hang around and nobody's out of the fight this time of year. You can't replicate desperation."
Desperation is only one aspect of the playoffs. There's also the stress.
"When my team won the Stanley Cup, I don't think I slept for eight weeks," Lovejoy said.
"You're just so stressed out, beating yourself up about every play. The highs are exceptionally high and they're hard to come down from and the lows are just feels like the world is ending. So low. You have to do your best to stay even-keel, but it's almost impossible."
Montgomery himself played in eight playoff games with the Flyers in the mid-90s and often talked about how little the regular season has to do with the playoffs.
After the Stars won in Winnipeg - then a potential first-round matchup - he brushed aside the notion that winning at Bell MTS Place would matter in the postseason. As the Central Division tightened down the stretch, Montgomery said the Predators would look different in the first round versus their play down the stretch. And he knows how different the American Airlines Center will be for Games 3 and 4 on April 15 and 17.
"I can't wait until we have our first home game," Montgomery said. "Two games in Nashville first and then come home. We know it's going to be a zoo here."
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