The pressure is always greatest after reaching the pinnacle of success, when expectations are at their highest and every team is expected to repeat what came just one year before. After winning the Stanley Cup in 1999 and easily becoming the best team in the NHL for that season, the Stars were expected to contend once more for the Cup and become yet another Dallas sports franchise that had repeated a championship win in back-to-back seasons. There was even talk about a possible dynasty in the works in Dallas.
Unfortunately, the 1999-2000 season did not go exactly as planned. The Stars opened the season 8-9-3-0 and questions began to linger whether the team had the ability to repeat the magical success of the season before. The Stars dealt with significant injuries as well, with Jere Lehtinen, Joe Nieuwendyk and Grant Marshall all missing major portions of the season. Lehtinen would play just 17 games that season after injuring his ankle and Nieuwendyk would deal with a shoulder injury that would limit him to just 47 games. It would be understandable, then, that the Stars would stumble a year after winning it all.
Except the Stars were able to rally as a team as the season wore on, buoyed by a tremendous defensive and goaltending performance that year, with several unsung heroes stepping up as the team became tighter and closer than ever before. Despite the injuries and despite the slow start, the Stars finished that season first in the division and rode some late-season momentum past the Oilers, Sharks and Avalanche all the way back to the Stanley Cup Finals. It seemed as if the impossible could happen once more.
And then they played the New Jersey Devils.
The Stars were once again riding high after a seven-game victory over the Colorado Avalanche, a team that everyone once again felt was superior to the Stars in every facet of the game. The new Jersey Devils, however, was a completely different monster to take on that season and one the Stars were obviously not fully prepared for.
Those Devils were not the Devils we think we know and remember. While defense and goaltending was certainly a staple of the franchise, the Devils were a physical and aggressive team that sported the most dangerous top line in the sport with the team scoring the second-most goals in the NHL that season. The Stars, meanwhile, had suffered a major offensive blow that year and finished just 22nd in scoring. The absence of Nieuwendyk and Lehtinen was staggering, with only one player (Mike Modano) finishing the season with more than 60 points.
We'll get more into the overall narrative of this series and that postseason in a later countdown post, but suffice it to say despite making it back to the Cup finals the Stars were outclassed at nearly every position on the ice -- except goaltender.
Many felt that Eddie Belfour would be the steadying force for the Stars against the Devils, a wish that was promptly destroyed when the Devils scored seven goals in Game 1. The Stars would recover and learn from their mistakes by winning Game 2, but the offensive issues flared up again and the Stars scored just three goals total over the next three games (likely winning one game thanks to perhaps the greatest goaltending effort in team history).
All of this led to a showdown in Game 6 at home for the Stars, once again attempting to fight off elimination against what was now apparently a superior team. The Stars were surviving by pure effort and will and it was in this series that we witnessed what these players had truly been made of. It was a physical, knock-down effort that left players on both sides injured and hurting yet still taking the ice game after game.
In Game 6, tempers flared early when Derian Hatcher absolutely destroyed Petr Sykora with a hit that would easily draw a 20-game suspension if it had happened today. The Stars also lost Darryl Sydor early in the game, with the defenseman playing just 1:35 before leaving with an ankle injury. The Devils would then take the early lead with a Scott Niedermayer short-handed goal on a breakaway after a Craig Ludwig turnover at the blue line.
The atmosphere in the building was depleted as Devils fans in the stands rejoiced, yet Mike Keane would soon tie the game on a wicked wrist shot from the far circle that negated the momentum the Devils had been building. After that, both goaltenders locked things down as both teams surged forward attempting to gain control of the game. Once again, however, it would take more than 60 minutes to find a winner.
Just two days after playing in three overtimes in Game 5, the Devils and Stars would head to the extra period. This was a game where both sides laid it all on the ice, one of the most physical playoff games most had witnessed and the Stars were fortunate to start overtime on the power play thanks to a Jason Arnott penalty. The Devils would easily kill the penalty, and the Devils would struggle to gain any momentum as they faced the possibility of losing eight-straight overtime games in the playoffs.
Yet a seemingly innocuous pass from the boards would change everything.
Scott Stevens would hold a clearing attempt at the blue line, with his pass going off a skate and through the slot to the far corner. Patrik Elias would beat out two Stars to the puck and throw a blind pass to the slot. For whatever reason, Jason Arnott had been left all alone for the easy tap-in goal.
Just like that, it was all over.
The Stars would lose in the second round of the playoffs in 2001 and would miss the postseason completely in 2002, showing just how quickly it can all fall apart after the highest of highs has been reached.
For Stars fans, that was one of the most painful nights of our sports lives -- the feeling that at any moment the Stars would lose it all with one bad play and then it eventually happening, especially after going through the exact same thing just two nights earlier. It's easy to forget, therefore, just how incredible this single game and just what sort of Herculean effort it took for this team to even get to that point.
The Stars may have lost that year to the Devils but it could be argued they never should have even had the chance to play them. The Stars, in that postseason, in that series and in that game, showcased just how mentally tough and physically taxing this sport can be and what a team can do when they come together as a team and overcome so many obstacles on their way to playing for it all.
They say that repeating a championship is harder than ever winning it the first time and after that series against the Devils it's easy to see why.
Here's video from that final game: