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Pacific: Stars searching for answers, victories

by Doug Ward

The Dallas Stars have fallen six points behind Anaheim in what is shaping up as a battle for home ice in the first round. Watch Stars highlights
With two weeks and six games remaining on the schedule before the Stanley Cup Playoffs open, the woebegone Dallas Stars -- losers of seven of eight games -- still have time to find themselves. If they can recapture the form that kept them in contention for the Pacific Division title for most of the season, the Stars just might end the run of postseason disappointments that have plagued the franchise over the last three years, where the Stars have been dismissed in the first round.

Right about now, applying a little George Costanza logic might be the best thing for the Stars, given that they went 8-3-4, 11-3-1, and 10-3-3 prior to those three playoff pratfalls. Maybe going into the playoffs without any momentum will work out better for the Stars.

In reality, however, the damage already done in Dallas will be difficult to overcome. The Stars have fallen six points behind Anaheim in what is shaping up as a battle for home ice in the first round of the playoffs between the Western Conference's fourth- and fifth-seeded teams. Saturday's loss, when they blew a 2-1 third-period lead to drop a crucial game to the Los Angeles Kings, was a tipping point for Dallas coach Dave Tippett.

First, Tippett rescinded the two days off he had originally scheduled for his players. Then, he put his team through a grueling Easter Sunday practice, one that didn't end until he had skated his team hard for 15 minutes without pucks.

"We were making sure we had lots of rest," Tippet told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram of his decision to make a change in plans. "Well, now we have lots of work."

Even if things had been going well for the Stars, Saturday's loss was so horrific, it alone could have inspired the motivation for a little soul searching. Playing on home ice, Dallas allowed the worst team in the NHL to score three goals in the final 3:01 of regulation to steal the win.

"You know things aren't going well, and the coach has to instill hard work in you, you know that something is wrong with the team," center Steve Ott told The Dallas Morning News. "And that's what (the practice) was all about: competing and hard work."

In the midst of their worst skid in four years, the Stars are searching for answers. Moves that seemed fresh just weeks ago now seem sour. Brad Richards has played point-a-game hockey (seven assists, two goals) since being obtained from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline, but the Stars have won just two of nine games. And Richards' numbers are somewhat misleading. After picking up five assists in his Stars' debut, Richards has just four points in eight games.

Meanwhile, mercurial goaltender Marty Turco is in the midst of another one of his down cycles. He's lost his last two starts, while posting a 3.03 goals-against average and .872 save percentage. Turco says the team is at a crossroads, looking for a defining moment. He didn't inspire much confidence, however, when he added, "you just hope it will be a positive defining moment."

As they prepare to enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Stars' team slogan is "Believe." Turco, however, seemed to offer a better insight into the psyche inside the Dallas dressing room: Hope.

Heading for home -- The Sharks have already clinched a playoff spot, but they're not stopping there. After picking up 29 of 30 available points, San Jose is bent on winning the Pacific Division, avoiding a first-round meeting with either Dallas or Anaheim, and guaranteeing themselves home ice in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

One of the more intriguing elements of San Jose's drive to the wire has been the resurgence of Patrick Marleau, who has picked up 11 points in 12 games.

In goal, Evgeni
Evgeni Nabokov of the Sharks narrowly saves a shot  against the Anaheim Ducks at HP Pavilion in San Jose, California.
has now played all but 273 minutes of the Sharks' season, leading the League with a career-high 43 wins while posting a 2.13 goals-against average. Anaheim, meanwhile, is dealing with uncertainty in goal as back spasms have sidelined Jean-Sebastien Giguere for two consecutive games.

With seven games remaining, the Sharks have a game in hand on the Ducks. Friday's huge 2-1 win against Anaheim was instrumental in giving San Jose its current five-point lead over Anaheim. The Sharks outshot the Ducks, 43-13, the largest such margin in club history. Even more impressive is the fact that the Ducks did not get a shot on goal in the third period as San Jose extended its unbeaten streak to 15.

The two teams meet again Friday at Anaheim.

Who's hot -- Shane Doan of the Coyotes has two goals and five assists in his last three games. … San Jose backup goaltender Brian Boucher has won his last two starts while posting a 0.50 GAA and .981 save percentage. … Despite the Stars' recent skid, Brenden Morrow has 12 points in 12 games.

Who's not -- Coyotes defenseman Nick Boynton has been held off the score sheet for 18 straight games while recording a minus-9 rating. … Francois Beauchemin of Anaheim has not scored in 11 games. … Mike Grier of the Sharks has not scored in 10 games. … Niklas Hagman of Dallas and Brian Sutherby of Anaheim are both scoreless in eight games. … Ilya Bryzgalov of Phoenix is 0-1-0 in his last two outings with a 3.76 GAA and a .808 save percentage.

The week ahead -- Anaheim plays three at home, hosting Los Angeles (Wednesday), San Jose (Friday), and Dallas (Sunday). … The Stars hope a four-game roadie will help them stop their slide, as they visit San Jose (Thursday), Los Angeles (Saturday), Anaheim (Sunday), and Phoenix (April 3). … Los Angeles will continue playing out the string with a game at Anaheim (Wednesday), followed by home games against Phoenix (Thursday) and Dallas (Saturday). … Phoenix, losers of five straight, will try to keep its flickering playoff hopes alive by hosting San Jose (Tuesday), then visiting Los Angeles (Thursday) and San Jose (Sunday). … The surging Sharks will be looking to secure the Pacific Division title with games at Phoenix (Tuesday) and Anaheim (Friday) sandwiched around a home game with Dallas (Thursday).

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