DALLAS — The plaque in the Seattle Kraken locker room held seven game pucks, signifying the first seven Stanley Cup playoff wins in franchise history.
There wouldn’t be an eighth. An equipment manager tucked the plaque under his arm after Game 7 against the Dallas Stars, packing it away once the Kraken were eliminated in a 2-1 loss Monday night.
But as veteran Jordan Eberle explained, not many believed the Kraken would even be a playoff team, let alone come one win away from the Western Conference finals.
“They didn’t expect us to make the playoffs. They didn’t expect us to beat Colorado. I’m sure no one had us getting to the seven here,” Eberle said. “As a group, this is the first time we’ve been through this. You’re got to learn how to lose first and then you’ll find a way to win.”
Seattle had a 40-point improvement in the standings from its inaugural season, making the playoffs in Year 2. The Kraken shocked the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche in seven games in the first round and pushed the Stars to a Game 7 after winning Game 6 at home.
It was a run that announced their arrival as a contender in the Western Conference; more importantly for the Kraken, it was the first time they felt like something more than a disparate collection of players on an expansion franchise.
“I think the group got tighter and tighter together. I think Matty [Beniers] said it: We played like a real team,” said goalie Philipp Grubauer. “Everybody’s playing for each other and that’s what made it fun. Unfortunately, we didn’t win that game today. But you need to go through those moments in order to get stronger. To feel that pain in the summer and get back at it for next season.”
Coach Dave Hakstol said that disappointment also helped strengthen the bonds between his players.
“Look at the pain of the veteran guys in that room,” he said. “When you’ve got guys that have won Cups and you’ve got guys that have been on playoff runs before, they understand how difficult it is to not only get into the playoffs but to get to the point where we’re one win away from being one of the final four teams.”
Hakstol said his first inkling that the Kraken could do something special was in training camp.
“There was a different feel to it,” he said. “I knew there was something there, but I had no idea exactly how or when we would be able to come together as a group. Did we grow over the last month? One hundred percent.”
“Guys kind of joke about it: Some players don’t even get a seven-game series in the first five years of their career. I’m already on my second.”
The Kraken had several players that won Stanley Cup championships and several more with palpable playoff experience — many of whom are signed through next season. But they also had some younger players on this playoff ride like forwards Tye Kartye and Beniers, who is a finalist for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
“Guys kind of joke about it: Some players don’t even get a seven-game series in the first five years of their career. I’m already on my second,” Beniers said.
Hakstol said having players like Beniers feel the sting of playoff elimination will also benefit them down the line.
“You see that pain in the veteran guys but for the young guys on the roster, the realization is there as well,” Hakstol said. “We’ll see the growth in those guys and the importance of the experience that they just went through.”
As Eberle said: “It took me seven years to get to the postseason. You don’t want to take it for granted.”
While forging bonds as teammates, the Kraken also forged an identity as a team. At their best, they were relentless on the forecheck and never folded in the face of adversity.
“It’s the culture. I think we grew as a team, as an organization, as a group,” said center Yanni Gourde. “Doing the right things night in and night out. Never cheating. We grew tremendously. That’s what we have to take away from this year.”
They didn’t have their best in Game 7. The Stars were a step faster and more aggressive on the forecheck. Grubauer, who had a redemptive postseason after two middling regular seasons in Seattle, made 26 saves to keep the Kraken in reach. They fought to the end, as winger Oliver Bjorkstrand scored with just over 17 seconds left in regulation to cut the lead to 2-1. But they ran out of runway.
“They’re an opportunistic team. You’ve got to give them credit,” Stars coach Peter DeBoer said. “I was really impressed with the job Dave Hakstol and his staff did, but also with how hard they played. They were relentless, right up until the final buzzer. They made us earn it.”
There were seven pucks in that locker room plaque. Three of them were from games played in Seattle, where the Kraken gave their fans a memorable first postseason ride. As much as the Kraken were put on the map with their play, Seattle was given its moment in the playoff spotlight with raucous home crowds.
“I think Seattle’s going to be a hot spot. Players are going to want to play there,” Eberle said. “It’s a great city, great facilities, great management, great organization and obviously we’re a great team. So it was awesome to give them some playoff hockey and give them the chance to see that.”