The Dallas Stars hung around the Stanley Cup Playoff race the past couple of seasons, only to fall apart before crossing the finish line. They did the exact opposite this season.
Dallas earned its first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2008 by going 8-4-0 its past 12 games. The Phoenix Coyotes also did their part to assist the Stars by going winless in their past six games (0-3-3), opening the door for Dallas to get the "X" next to its name in the standings after a 3-0 win Friday night against the St. Louis Blues.
This playoff berth is a long time coming for the Stars. They lost a win-and-get-in game on the last day of the 2010-11 regular season. They lost nine of their last 12 games, including their final five, to finish the 2011-12 season six points out of the final playoff spot. It didn't get any better last season, when the Stars dropped their last five games en route to another dark spring.
The constant disappointment led to sweeping changes last offseason. Jim Nill took over as general manager and hired Lindy Ruff as coach. Dallas acquired Tyler Seguin in a blockbuster trade with the Boston Bruins. Jamie Benn was named captain.
The Stars needed to become a younger, faster team. They needed to attack. They needed a new identity.
It was hard to imagine it could happen in one season. Quite frankly, it didn't, because there still is plenty of work to be done in Dallas, but the Stars found their way into the playoffs for the first time in six years because they closed with a bang instead of a whimper.
Here are five reasons that they pulled it off:
1. Dynamic duo
Seguin needed a soft landing after a hard fall in Boston. He got it in Dallas thanks to Benn. They hit it off during the summer, became instant friends, and their bond carried over onto the ice.
If Benn and Seguin didn't complement each other so well the Stars wouldn't be in the playoffs.
Seguin became better than a point-per-game player with a career-high 84 points on 37 goals and 47 assists in 79 games. Benn became a 30-goal scorer for the first time in his career. He has 34 goals and 45 assists in 81 games. One would not have happened without the other.
Benn and Seguin have scored 31 percent of Dallas' 230 goals. They have 569 shots on goal, 22 percent of Dallas' total (2,580). They have also helped rookie Valeri Nichushkin's development in his first season in North America. Nichushkin, the right wing on Dallas' top line for much of the season, has chipped in with 14 goals and 34 points.
2. Second helping
As much as the Stars have been paced by Benn and Seguin, their second wave of offense has been formidable. Dallas' second line featuring Antoine Roussel, Cody Eakin and Ryan Garbutt has combined for 47 goals and is a load to play against.
Since Ruff wants Seguin, Benn and Nichushkin to be in as many offensive situations as possible, he typically will give a lot of the defensive zone starts to Eakin, Roussel and Garbutt. That means a lot of the time they're facing the opposition's best line. It may not be the ideal scenario, but they've handled the responsibility well.
They're a handful to play against because of their speed. Eakin, Garbutt and Roussel help drive the Stars' quick-transition game. They've provided necessary secondary scoring as a result.
Eakin has 35 points on 16 goals and 19 assists. Garbutt has 17 goals and 32 points, and Roussel has 29 points, but most of their offense has come at even strength since they don't see time on the power play. Roussel leads the Stars with 197 penalty minutes, followed by Garbutt, who has 106.
Watch the Stars on any given night it is 2 1/2 hours of fast-paced entertainment. Dallas' relentless, aggressive attack is derived from its team speed. The faster the Stars play, the better they are. Their team speed is a big reason for why they're back in the playoffs.
The Stars are fast and they let teams know it from the opening faceoff to the final buzzer. Their attacking style masks some of the mistakes they make because they are quick to cover them up. When they can't, the Stars do get burned -- but they don't stop attacking because that's the style they want to play and the identity Ruff wants them to have.
From the moment Ruff got to Dallas last summer he noted that team speed would be their greatest strength. He was bang on.
When the Stars are playing the way they want to play there is very little hesitation in their game. They get the puck and they go. Up the middle, down the walls, the Stars attack from everywhere. It's a north-south game and their team speed can be overwhelming. It's going to make them a difficult team to handle in the playoffs.
4. Not Leht-ing up
Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen has put up strong numbers in the past, including in 2011-12, when he set career-highs in goals-against average (2.33) and save percentage (.922). The Stars didn't make the playoffs that year; they fell six points short with 89. Lehtonen didn't help the cause, going 1-5-0 in his last six starts with 19 goals allowed and a save percentage of .898.
GAA: 2.41 | SVP: 0.919
Since giving up five goals March 18 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, his first game since sustaining a concussion 10 days earlier, Lehtonen is 8-3-0 with two shutouts and 20 goals allowed (.929 save percentage, 1.89 GAA). He beat the Blues twice, most recently with a 22-save shutout Friday. Lehtonen also had a 35-save shutout against the Washington Capitals.
Lehtonen's strong finish shouldn't be a surprise. He has had a successful season with 33 wins, a .919 save percentage and 2.41 GAA.
5. Defensive growth
Ruff and Nill already knew what they had on defense with Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley. Sergei Gonchar was a solid veteran addition for the power play and helped Russian rookie forward Nichushkin feel comfortable.
Dillon and Benn answered the bell. Connauton is still a work-in-progress, but he showed glimpses of his future.
Dillon, in particular, looks like he could be a future cornerstone defenseman. He routinely faces the opposition's top players and still winds up on the plus side. He's big, rangy and uses his long reach well. He has learned this season not to take himself out of the play simply for the sake of trying to make a big hit. He's more deceptive and uses his body more.
Benn is powerful, a defensive defenseman. He has some skill, but his main job is to protect the front of the net. Ruff trusts him because he plays a simple, hard game. Benn's ice time climbed late in the season as the games got tighter, and he didn't disappoint.