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Nichushkin, strong start are X-factors for Stars

by Steve Hunt

DALLAS -- In the Dallas Stars' second season under coach Lindy Ruff, they increased their point total from 91 to 92; however, they found themselves going from a participant in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs to finishing sixth in the Central Division and 10th in the Western Conference, on the outside of the postseason picture for the sixth time in seven seasons.

With reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn, the dynamic Tyler Seguin and veteran Jason Spezza, the Stars certainly have the scoring talent for Ruff to guide them back to the playoffs.

Here are three X-factors that will help determine whether the Stars make the postseason:

The Valeri Nichushkin factor: Dallas took the Russian-born right wing with the 10th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Nichushkin had 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games as a rookie in 2013-14, a nice start to his NHL career.

The thought was Nichushkin would carry those numbers forward into 2014-15, but injuries limited him to eight games in his second season. Four of those came at the end of the season, and Ruff liked what he saw from the 20-year-old.

"I think it was tough, stepping back in after not playing, but he's really skating well," Ruff said. "He feels great and I think he was so frustrated with how he felt at the start of the year, it was tough to get a read on him."

Nichushkin, who could skate on the second or third line, gives Dallas a nice secondary scoring option down the lineup, a solid complement to key offensive cogs Benn and Seguin, who feature prominently on the top line.

A good start's important: The Stars were 12-9-4 in their first 25 games in Ruff's first season. Last season, they went 9-11-5 through 25 games, including a seven-game losing streak (0-5-2) between Oct. 25 and Nov. 8.

If the Stars are to return to the postseason, Ruff knows the start must be better and avoiding another long losing streak this fall is imperative.

"We can't have any of those, and I think you got to be able to bounce back," Ruff said. "If you lose a game, you got to be ready to bounce back and win. Even in the last two years, we had an eight-game section in year one and last year the seven-game, so for me it's really important [to avoid that]. If you're chasing the season, it's tough on a team."

Ruff's message of needing to start stronger is one that has already resonated with the Stars veterans.

"Yeah, it's hard to dig yourself too big of a hole. It seems like it's a lot harder to make up ground, obviously, than it is to fall, so you don't want to put yourself in that position," defenseman Alex Goligoski said. "It's not absolutely essential that you win 15 of your first 18, 20 games, but it definitely helps, because you don't know what's going to happen with injuries and whatnot. We got a full, healthy squad, and you want to start banging out some wins right away."

Defensive improvement: Since they play an up-tempo brand of hockey and score plenty of goals, the Stars are a fun team to watch from an offensive standpoint. And last season, Dallas scored 257 goals, second most in the NHL.

However, the Stars allowed 257 goals, tied for 26th in the League.

Ruff believes the addition of veteran Johnny Oduya and his young defensemen having more experience should help that second number drop considerably.

"I think our defense's improved," Ruff said. "I think our young guys will be better. I think that second half of the year, with [John] Klingberg coming in and [Jason] Demers and moving the puck better out of our zone, we were a lot better team."

Ruff thinks his players will use the disappointment of not making the playoffs last season as an impetus to improve various aspects of their game.

"I'm excited. Was disappointing last year because I felt we were a better team than where we ended up. We faced some adversity," Ruff said. "We got better in some areas. I think we need to get better again, but I think we're really going in the right direction."

Ruff likes the focus he has seen in his players during the preseason.

"I just see a determination," Ruff said. "Everybody wants to be in the postseason. We've faced some disappointment, and I think if you can use that as a springboard to success, it's a hard lesson, but sometimes it's the lesson that don't take certain games for granted and be ready to play the 82-game schedule."

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