A strong start to the season proved vital to the Dallas Stars on the way to remaining at or near the top of the Western Conference all season.
The result was a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in eight seasons after the Stars defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 6-2 at United Center on Tuesday.
General manager Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff knew a fast start was critical to developing any momentum the Stars could build down the stretch and within the Central Division, and that's precisely what happened.
When Dallas failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, it was 10-13-5 overall and 6-9-4 against Western foes through games played Dec. 10, 2014. On that date four months ago, the Stars were in first place in the Central at 21-5-2, including 9-1-2 within their conference.
The fact forward Tyler Seguin is expected to miss 3-4 weeks after sustaining a cut to his right Achilles tendon on March 17 has also made clear the importance of that early season success.
Dallas overcame injuries to forward Patrick Sharp (lower body), and defensemen Jordie Benn (lower body), John Klingberg (lower body) and Jason Demers (upper body) with steady and consistent performances, and players made no excuses. The Stars lead the NHL in goals scored and goals-per-game average.
Here are five reasons why the Stars clinched:
1. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin
Benn has been everything expected of a captain since given that role entering 2013-14. The reigning Art Ross Trophy winner reached the 30-goal mark for the third consecutive season, and is one of three NHL players to score at least 30 in each of the past three seasons, joining Seguin and Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin.
Seguin has reached 30 goals for the third straight season, making him and Benn the only teammates in the League to have scored that many in each of the past three seasons. The injury he sustained is a tough loss for the offense, but the Stars have proven the ability to rally despite key injuries with a next-man-up mentality all season.
Video: STL@DAL: Benn's PPG ties it up with 1:12 left
2. Improved power play
The Stars struggled on the power play last season and finished in a tie for 11th (19 percent) in the League with the man-advantage.
This season, Dallas is third in the Western Conference and fourth in the League at 22.3 percent, and Benn is second in the NHL with 16 power-play goals.
3. Home sweet home
The Stars weren't able to take advantage of the familiar confines of American Airlines Center in 2014-15, finishing 17-16-8. Dallas has been dominant in front of its home fans with a 24-11-2 record this season.
Dallas ranks among the top three in the League in goals scored, shots taken and power-play goals on home ice.
4. Offensive depth
The offensive and defensive depth was put to the test this season, and the fact the Stars not only lead the NHL in goals scored but have 10 players with 10 goals or more is proof those second-tier players are getting the job done.
Forward Cody Eakin, who usually plays a checking role, has taken on more offensive responsibilities, and that likely will continue with Seguin expected to miss considerable time.
"I think we want to do it as a team, guys need to step up together," Eakin told the Dallas Morning News. "You don't change your style much, you just get different opportunities and try to do the most with them."
Video: NYI@DAL: Eakin finishes the two-on-one rush
5. Relying on Ruff
Ruff made certain goaltenders Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen had equal time this season so each would be ready to begin the playoffs. Lehtonen had played no fewer than 65 games in each of the past two regular seasons, but this year has yet to play in 40 games.
The injuries could have been devastating at a time when the Stars were clicking on all cylinders, but weren't because of Ruff's ability to get the most out of his lineup. A part of that was showing confidence in two rookies, forward Radek Faksa and defenseman Stephen Johns.
Without three of his top six defensemen, Ruff gave Kris Russell, Alex Goligoski, Johnny Oduya, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak big minutes, and utilized Johns at the right times. The move to acquire Russell from the Calgary Flames on Feb. 29 is proving one of the more unheralded transactions of the season. Russell is playing top-pair minutes with Goligoski, is on the top power-play unit and is also playing a big role on the penalty kill.