TORONTO - Don't look now, but the Dallas Stars are turning it around.
The Stars earned their seventh victory in their last 11 games with an 8-2 trouncing of the host Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night. That's as many wins as the Stars had in their first 22 games of the season.
"We're playing our best hockey of the year so far," said Stars coach Dave Tippett. "We struggled so much and were so inconsistent (early in the season), and now we're starting to put some strings ofnot just wins together, but we're playing some decent hockey. If we continue to improve in that area, we'll continue to improve as a team."
And there certainly was room for improvement for a team that had advanced to the Western Conference playoff final last spring, losing to eventual Stanley Cup-champion Detroit in six games. After a decade-long commitment to defensive hockey, the Stars struggled without the puck through the first two-plus months of 2008-09.
Shoddy team defence combined with another atypical Stars phenomena porous goaltending by the usually stellar Marty Turco - and the result was a Dallas team that was well down the standings as mid-season approached.
Dallas entered the game against Toronto in 14th place in the West, ahead of only the St. Louis Blues.
"We have to continue to build, that's what we want to do," Tippett said. "We've been talking about that for a while now. Every gamewe didn't get the two points in Ottawa (a 5-4 overtime loss on Saturday), but we thought there were some things to build on there. And again tonight, I thought there were some things we could accomplish as a group and we were able to do that."
Turco, whose save percentage was dead-last at one point this season, is 4-0-1 in his past five starts and improved his overall record to 13-12-5. With a goals-against average above 3.00 and a save percentage below .900, the Stars goalie still has a way to go to salvage his season. But at least the journey has begun.
"We're more conscious of the things necessary that we want to accomplish on the ice," Turco said. "The way we want to play the game, with our system and our style, everybody's on the same page now. I don't think we were exactly that at the start of the year."
Turco didn't mention Sean Avery by name, but it's likely not a coincidence the Stars' turnaround coincides with the agitating winger's dismissal from the team.
The coach, however, pointed to the players who have returned rather than the one who has departed.
"I think it's a question of getting players back healthy," Tippett said. "When you can add Jere Lehtinen and Steve Ott to your lineup, it's a positive thing and enhances your group. So we're continuing to work and as long as we play hard as a team, things will go in the right direction."
For the Stars, that can mean only one thing.
"We know where we should be now, and that's a big difference," Turco said. "That's the one thing that can propel us back into the playoff picture."