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Big Benn: Victoria boy driving Dallas in 2014, against Anaheim
He didn't lead the league in scoring. That title belongs to Sidney Crosby, which ain't a shocker. He didn't even lead his own team in scoring, with that job falling to import Tyler Seguin.
But 2014 might just be Jamie Benn's year.
An Olympic orientation camp snub nearly a year ago, Benn turned the Canada upset into motivation. "It gives you a little fire," he said last August. "I just want to kind of shove it in their face."
In September, the Victoria, B.C. boy was named captain of the Dallas Stars, a team he had been leading in Big D – without the C – already. He responded to the Canada snub on the ice with a throttling start to the year and he got that national job, playing in Sochi alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on what was easily Canada's most dominant line, shift-to-shift. And then he led the Stars to the playoffs, their first since 2008, back when Mike Modano and Marty Turco were the faces of the franchise.
And now he's leading his scorchingly green Dallas club against his two-week teammates Getzlaf and Perry and their Anaheim Ducks, picking up game-winners and thumping his way towards the net, proving whatever doubters he had wrong, even if we all already know he's pretty darn good.
He'll have a chip on his shoulder until he's lifting the Cup. When you're snubbed once, you tend to earn everything after that.
Last night, the Stars hung on for a 3-0 win and filed the series down to 2-1 Anaheim, buoyed by goalie Kari Lehtonen's 37 saves.
And the goalie's heroics weren't lost on his captain...
"It was unbelievable. That's Kari at his best," Benn said after the game. "He made some big saves at key times and kept us in the game and pretty much won that game for us."
But it was Benn who opened the scoring, slapping what would eventually be the winner past an outstretched Frederik Andersen in the first period.
And it was his linemate – 19-year-old rookie Valeri Nichushkin, who Dallas selected at 10th overall in last year's draft, one pick after the Vancouver Canucks took London's Bo Horvat – who added the insurance.
A lot of guys have been responsible for Dallas's return to relevance – head coach Lindy Ruff, for one, who was brought in last summer to replace Glen Gulutzan, who's now the assistant bench boss in Vancouver. Seguin is of course another, as is Nichushkin and the other rookie, Alex Chiasson. Vets like Ray Whitney and Erik Cole have been solid and dependable. Same goes for Rich Peverley.
But if you watch one second of action from the Lonestar State, you'll notice something's changed, and something's also pretty familiar.
Because the crowd loves it, like they did in the late 90's when not even Dominik Hasek could stop their attack. The players are playing... together. And Jamie Benn is the motor that makes the speedboat churn.
It's hard to think of another guy in the NHL who's meant as much to his team this year. Benn has gone from a guy everyone knew was good, but who still needed to have his supporters remind Easterners he existed, to a guy feared by any goalie, any crowd he's coming down on. His Olympic performance in February was a slice of vindication, but it's like he never stops, like he's always going to have something to prove. Anaheim is the best team in the West, and it's Round 1, so you know what that makes the Stars: underdogs. But watch this speech below, and you'll see there's nothing wrong with being the little guy, not when he doesn't know he's the little guy.
It's funny, that when a team rediscovers its identity and its fanbase, it's still a Lone Star that's driving Dallas.
*Files from Associated Press, author Stephen Hawkins.
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