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Stars finding their identity in stretch run

Montgomery, players agree 'relentless' has nice ring to it during charge toward playoffs

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DALLAS -- Who are the Dallas Stars?

For much of the season, their identity was unclear. But now they describe it in one word.

"The word's relentless," coach Jim Montgomery said.

It showed even in a 3-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche at American Airlines Center on Thursday. After Dallas fell behind 2-0, center Tyler Seguin made it 2-1 with 5:01 left in the third period before the Stars allowed an empty-net goal. They outshot the Avalanche 45-32.

The Stars (38-30-6) hold the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference and host the Pittsburgh Penguins at American Airlines Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, FS-SW+, ATTSN-PT, NHL.TV).

Video: FLA@DAL: Radulov finishes off pretty passing play

Montgomery said Dallas had become more consistent and fundamentally sound with and without the puck, and the players were a lot more comfortable with how they were playing no matter if they were ahead or behind.

"We're playing a good brand of hockey," Montgomery said. "We're going to end up on the right side of the score sheet most of the time if we keep playing this way."

Montgomery joined the Stars on May 4 after five seasons as coach at the University of Denver, where he won the NCAA championship and was coach of the year in 2016-17. His plan was for the Stars to be a puck-pressure, puck-possession team.

But he faced a number of challenges. He had to adjust from college to the high-level, 82-game grind of the NHL. He had to get to know the players, and the players had to get to know him and his system. Many were on their third coach in three years in Dallas.

"When you change coaches and you're changing the way you do everything, it takes a while for players to not only understand how it works but to trust that it's going to work," Montgomery said. "And that's the part that I guess I underestimated."

Oh, and injuries struck hard too. It's hard to create chemistry and consistency when players are coming and going. The Stars have used 14 defensemen this season.

"I was a little frustrated at times this year, because we didn't have our identity until so late," Seguin said. "Usually you have it pretty early. Not frustrated. I was just kind of still confused, because we hadn't figured out what it was yet."

The turning point came Jan. 20-29, when the NHL had the All-Star break and the Stars had their mandatory five-day break under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.

Video: Stars GM Jim Nill on 2020 Winter Classic in Dallas

Montgomery stayed in Dallas. He spent the first two or three days at home, spending time with his family, reflecting. He didn't watch video, so he would be objective when he watched it again.

Then he started studying the League. Why were, say, the New York Islanders and the Vegas Golden Knights succeeding? Why were other teams better offensively?

"The teams I looked at, they have an identity and they play to that identity and they don't stray from it," Montgomery said. "I thought that we were very inconsistent because we did stray, not only us not all being on the same page, players and coaches, but us coaches weren't consistent enough with coaching to our identity."

General manager Jim Nill noticed a difference in Montgomery after the break.

"It's like he said, 'I'm the coach of this team now. I've got this. I'm in charge,' " Nill said. "He took charge."

Montgomery told Seguin and defenseman John Klingberg they would be the alternate captains permanently, and he assigned them and forward Jamie Benn, the captain, to figure out the Stars' identity. They talked and came up with three or four words, relentless being the main one. (They decided against T-shirts.)

"It's also mainly trust and patience, because it takes sometimes 65 minutes," Seguin said. "We're going to outlast teams with our work and with our trust in our process and our belief in the system. That's where we've found success down the stretch.

"A lot of times in the past few years, especially last year, we've come to the true time of 'Do you trust your system?' and we've [fallen] on our face. But this year, we've stuck with it, and it's worked."

Video: FLA@DAL: Klingberg nets wrister on power play

Before the break, the Stars were 24-21-4. They were third in goals against (128) but 29th in goals (126) and controlled 47.32 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts, 27th in the NHL.

Since the break, the Stars have gone 14-9-2. They are third in goals against (54) and 22nd in goals (60) in that span and have controlled 49.70 of the 5-on-5 shot attempts, 17th in the League.

And since Feb. 28, they have gone 7-3-1. They are first in goals against (16) and 20th in goals (28) in that span and have controlled 51.23 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts, 12th in the League.

"We had to go through some ups and downs, talk as a group to figure out really what we wanted to be and what our identity wanted to be," Benn said. "We tried to pinpoint certain things in our game as a group that we're best at and make us hard to play against. Relentlessness was one of the words that kept coming up, and it's kind of just the style of hockey that we play.

"We've found success, and we believe in it. If we continue to play like that and play our style of hockey, we're going to have success."

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