This Stars regular season laughed in the face of logic, with a confounding coaching change and stretches of both world-beating play and worrying episodes. This second-round series with the Avalanche cackled at convention, with a goaltending carousel to go along with an inexplicably high-scoring series.
And still, Friday afternoon's Game 7 against Colorado was a hyena howling at the hockey world until a diminutive Finnish hero named Joel Kiviranta elevated the Stars with the most unlikely hat trick in a 5-4 overtime win, advancing the Stars to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2008.
It was Kiviranta — the 5-11, 180-pound floppy-haired rookie — who won the series 7:24 into overtime, dispatching the Avalanche by claiming the vacant ice in the slot and whistling a shot past third-string goaltender Michael Hutchinson. It was his third goal of the game (he also tied the game late in the third period), capping a wild game to finish a wild series.
"He's undaunted by anything out there," Stars interim coach Rick Bowness said of Kiviranta. "He's not intimidated by one thing. He's a great little competitor. Is it nice to see him get rewarded with goals? Yes. Are we surprised at that? Yes. Did we expect that kind of effort? Yeah, that's what we saw when we played him earlier in the year."
With Kiviranta's heroics, along with two goals from Alexander Radulov, the Stars are part of the NHL's final four for the first time in the Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin era. They are among the league's elite, halfway to the Stanley Cup with Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday night.
They finally eclipsed the second-round hump that stood in their way the last half-decade. Gone is the misery from last year's Game 7 loss to St. Louis. Vanished is the Game 7 loss to the Blues in 2016. All that's left for the Stars is a ticket to the next round, two more weeks in the Edmonton bubble and a game that will be known for years to come in Dallas simply as The Kiviranta Game.
"It's a lot of excitement for sure right now," defenseman John Klingberg said, "and some kind of relief as well."
Stars captain Jamie Benn: "This year, it's nice to get that win and move on. Our team has put in a lot of hard work. That Colorado team is pretty damn good. It really took every guy in that dressing room to get that win. I like how our group stuck with it tonight and we had the secret Finnish weapon over here."
Kiviranta wasn't supposed to be in the Stars lineup on Friday afternoon. It took an injury to Andrew Cogliano — the player who didn't miss a game due to injury until his 12th year in the NHL — to be inserted in the lineup. Kiviranta had played two playoff games in his NHL career, and never a Game 7.
The coaching staff was comfortable enough with the 24-year-old Finn given his previous NHL recalls and big game experience in the World Championship last year. For Bowness, it was an easy decision, maybe just one he wishes he'd made sooner.
"If I were a smart coach, I would have had him in a lot earlier, clearly," Bowness said.
Kiviranta was the asymptote to Colorado's momentum: It could approach him, but never pass him.
When Andre Burakovsky put the Avalanche up for the first time in the second period, six minutes later it was Kiviranta with the response, tipping a Denis Gurianov shot to tie the game. When Vladislav Namestnikov scored with 3:40 left in the game to give Colorado a late 4-3 lead, it was Kiviranta who needed just 10 seconds to even the game and send it to overtime.
Then he ended it himself in overtime by burying a feed from Andrej Sekera.
The Stars needed someone to step up in Game 7 — with the game, series, season and legacies on the line — and Kiviranta happily obliged.
"It was my first Game 7 in my life, and it felt like normal game for me," said Kiviranta, who said he'd have to comb through his phone heavily when he got back to his hotel room. "Pretty fun."
After the game, as much of the hockey world frantically tried to learn who Kiviranta was and where he came from (born in Vantaa, Finland and played professionally in Liiga for five years before playing primarily in the AHL this season), he was the most popular player on HockeyDB.com.
Klingberg already knew who Kiviranta was from last year's World Championship, when Finland knocked out Sweden. In the bubble, the Stars have a greater appreciation for Kiviranta's sense of humor.
"Probably the most funniest guy of the Finns," Klingberg said.
"100 percent funnier more than Esa (Linell)," Radulov said.
A loss in Game 7 would have been crushing for the Stars, who led the series 3-1 before losing Game 5 and 6. It would have come to an Avalanche team clearly outmanned at the end of the series, missing their captain, top two goalies, a top-four defenseman and three depth players.
The Stars chose to deny the onset of the offseason, and pushed one round closer to their first Stanley Cup since 1999.
"We're halfway home," Bowness said. "That's where we are. We came here to win the Stanley Cup and that's our goal."
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