Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett's emphasis on defense seemed to have been largely forgotten by his players early this season - that is, until the team's most recent game.
Coming off perhaps their best defensive effort of the season in a victory over a formidable opponent, the Stars try for their third win in four games Friday night when they face the Chicago Blackhawks.
Dallas (4-4-2) has traditionally relied on tight defense as one of the NHL's most consistent perennial playoff contenders, a formula that sixth-year coach Tippett embraces. The Stars, however, have gotten off to an uncharacteristic start to this season, leading the league with 40 goals allowed.
Tippett's club may have finally started getting back to basics in Wednesday's 4-2 home victory over Minnesota. The Stars limited the Wild to 21 shots - 11 over the final two periods - in dealing them their first regulation loss of the season.
Dallas outplayed a tough defensive team that came in having allowed 14 goals in seven contests.
"That was a step in the right direction," Tippett told the Stars' official Web site. "We came out and set a good tone and had some players really engaged in the game. Tobias (Stephan) gave us solid goaltending and this might have been (Brad) Richards' best game of the season.
"There are some things to grab onto and it was one of our better games from our defensemen. Now we have to keep building on this."
The 24-year-old Stephan, who was 2 seconds away from a shutout in Chicago in his NHL debut Oct. 13, 2007 before losing 2-1 in overtime, made his first start since then Wednesday and stopped 19 shots. Stephan started in place of slumping veteran Marty Turco, who has a 4.26 goals-against average but may return to the net Friday.
"That's my job, I just try to make the best of it and stay focused and be ready when called upon," Stephan said after earning his first NHL victory. "I feel good and it was good to get the win tonight."
They will be opening a five-game road trip Friday against a Blackhawks team that's dropped two in a row since its most complete effort of the season, a 3-0 victory over Edmonton on Oct. 22. The level of competition may have had something to do with that, as Chicago (3-3-3) fell 6-5 in a shootout to defending champion Detroit on Saturday before losing 3-2 at Minnesota on Monday.
The loss to the Wild snapped the Blackhawks' seven-game point streak, as Chicago allowed three straight goals after grabbing a 1-0 lead in the first period on a goal by Patrick Sharp. Duncan Keith scored with 4:34 remaining in the game to pull the Blackhawks within one, but they couldn't get the equalizer despite outshooting the Wild 11-6 in the third period.
Chicago outshot Minnesota 36-18 overall - 18-4 in the second period.
A reporter suggested to Keith afterward that his team played well despite the loss. Keith disagreed.
"We kind of played right into their hands," he said. "So saying it's a good game, I don't think that sits well with us."
Dallas won last season's series with Chicago 2-1-1. The Stars took their last game at the United Center 3-1 on Jan. 9, breaking a three-game losing streak there.