Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Toronto Maple Leafs 4 at Dallas Stars 3 (SO) - November 25, 2011

Black Friday was anything but for me. Although I did a bit of early shopping, I spent most of the early part of the day touring a couple of attractions in Fort Worth, including a fantastic Caravaggio exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum.

After that, I headed back to Dallas to enjoy the evening's entertainment: the Leafs taking on the Stars. It would be the 17th time I would witness the Buds on the road, and with a cumulative 4-11-1 record up till now, I was desperately hoping for a victory. As I walked to the American Airlines Center, I was happy to see plenty of other Leaf fans; there were so many of us that the building was sold out for the first time this season.

American Airlines Center

Located on the edge of downtown Dallas in Victory Park, the AAC is home to the defending champion Dallas Mavericks (no banner yet though, thanks to the just-finished lockout) as well as the Stars. It opened in 2001 and is still a great place to watch a top-notch sporting event.

There is plenty of parking around the stadium for $15. I drove around a bit before the game and didn't find any free parking in the immediate vicinity, but since I was staying in a hotel about a mile away, I didn't look very hard. There is also transit available, with DART's Victory station mere steps away from the stadium.

From the outside, the stadium is very impressive. As I drove north on 35E, the AAC majestically appeared on my right. It could be an old train station or airport terminal, and with the naming rights purchased by American, the locals often refer to it as "The Hangar".

There are entrances on each side of the building, but it is the south side that includes AT&T Plaza, which is where various events are held and a large screen shows highlights and other videos both before and after the game (above).

Tickets for hockey are not cheap but not ridiculously overpriced, particularly for the upper deck. I found a seat in third row at the blueline for $45 which was more than reasonable. Considering that lower bowl seats range from $70 to $300, the upper bowl is the better choice. Sightlines from here were perfectly fine.

The two seating levels are separated by the luxury boxes and club seats. The concourses are spacious enough as you can see below.

There are few bells and whistles once inside. On the lower concourse, one atrium has some small model AA airplanes hanging (above), and there is a cool exhibit illustrating just how high Dirk Nowitzki can jump (138") and testing your vertical leap as well (below). There is also the Jack Daniels Old No. 7 Club which offered appetizers and seemed popular with the locals.

The upper concourse is more limited, with the Dr. Pepper Plant (below), a small eatery with a bit of history about the beverage invented in Waco back in 1885.

Food options are plentiful and there are concessions everywhere. I had an Italian sausage from Sheriff Blaylocks which I would recommend, it was piled high with peppers and onions and made for a full meal for the three hours I was there.

The end zones have scoreboards that show other statistics on a continuous basis, something that I really appreciate.

Overall, AAC is an excellent venue for hockey. There isn't a lot of history yet, but they do have plenty of banners celebrating their success, including that one Stanley Cup banner that Buffalo fans refuse to acknowledge. The place is clean, staff are friendly, and the fans were great, even to a visit team supporter like myself. If you haven't been here, put it on your to-see list.

The Game

The Leafs and Stars had both started strongly but had faded of late, with Toronto lying 5th in the East at 12-8-2 while Dallas was 4th in the West at 13-8. This was the third of a 4-game road trip for Toronto, who had thrashed Tampa Bay 7-1 three days earlier behind a suddenly potent power play. The Stars were finishing up a 4-game homestand in which they had won the last two.

Given that the previous day was Thanksgiving, I expected a lethargic start but Dallas jumped out quickly when Eric Nystrom took a pass from Michael Ryder, deked around Phil Kessel and beat Jonas Gustavsson (above) with a low wrist shot to make it 1-0 after just 4 minutes.

In past seasons, I would have expected the Leafs to fold but this team is different and they fought back quickly. Just after the midway mark of the period, Joey Crabb deflected a Dion Phaneuf (above in the warmup) point shot on a play that looked to be offside and then Phaneuf himself added a power play tally 4 minutes later that just got under Kari Lehtonen (below, also in the warmup). The period finished with the teams level in shots at 7, so it wasn't a barnburner by any means.

The second period was highlighted by a fantastic Dallas goal. The puck began behind the Stars net and was moved forward via just four passes, with each player on the ice touching the puck once. It went Grossman to Daley to Benn to Dvorak to Nystrom who tipped the puck past a helpless Gustavsson. I don't like seeing the Leafs scored upon, but in this case, I had to admire the brilliance of the play. It's worth checking the highlight out here.

There were further problems in the second with two Leafs getting knocked out of the game. Both David Steckel and Carl Gunnarson were hit on the hand by shots and had to leave. Coincidentally, I was taking pictures when Gunnarson got dinged, which you can see below.

The third period was tough for Toronto. Down two men and on the road, I was hoping they could hold out for overtime as Dallas completely controlled the play, outshooting Toronto 6-0 in the early going. Only a couple of miracle stops by Gustavsson kept the Leafs in the game. Then against the flow, Tim Connolly threw what appeared to be a blind pass to the front of the net where a streaking Clarke MacArthur tipped it home with 13 minutes to go. The play was reviewed and emphatically called a "good goal".

However, the Leafs were visibly flagging and couldn't stave off the relentless Dallas attack. Eventually Dvorak tied it after the Stars had maintained possession in the Toronto zone for at least a minute. It was obvious that the Leafs were tired and when they drew a stupid penalty with 3:38 to go, I was sure it would be the end. Again though, this squad is different and they managed to kill the penalty and even get a power play in the process. Although that did not yield any goals, it did bring us to the end of regulation and the Leafs had secured a point.

Overtime was scoreless with the Leafs gaining the only two shots to finish the contest down 29-23 in that category. That brought on the shootout, the third in four games for me at a Leafs game. The Leafs had won the previous two, so I was quite hopeful as Gustavsson had been solid all night.

After the first two shooters for each team missed, Joffrey Lupul beat Kari Lehtonen to the short side to give the Leafs the advantage (below, the puck is in the net already).

The Stars' last shooter was Mike Ribeiro, who has a patented move that was highlighted during one of the intermissions. In that move, he turns sideways and brings the puck from his backhand to the forehand, trying to flip it over the netminder. Gustavsson must have seen the video because he was prepared and although the puck dribbled to the line, it didn't go in.

Leafs win! Leafs win! It was the first time I had seen a Leafs road victory by myself, as in the past other fans had joined me. I was a bit sad to not have anyone to high-five with, but the whole trip to Dallas was worth it just to see the scoreboard below.


The Stanley Cup was in the house as the Stars had it brought to town for a local tournament. It was at Cowboys Stadium the day before and then here, drawing a line of fans who wanted a picture of themselves with Lord Stanley.

After the game, I paid a visit to the nearby Fan Sports Lounge, where I was offered the grand sum of $40 for my vintage #7 Greg Terrion jersey. Needless to say, I refused the offer. Nothing less than $40,000 for those interested.

I flew back on Sunday, missing the Leafs 5-2 win in Anaheim. Three in a row on the road?! Seriously, this team is good and so much more fun to watch than two years ago. Already planning my trip to Alberta in February.



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