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Stars focused on strong finish entering Olympic break

by Steve Hunt

DALLAS -- With just four games remaining prior to the Olympic break, the Dallas Stars are well aware of how important it is to enter it on a positive note.

Dallas begins a three-game road trip Saturday at the Anaheim Ducks, then faces the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday and the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday before returning home for another game against the Coyotes next Saturday, their final game before the League breaks for the 2014 Sochi Olympics beginning Feb. 9.

No one better realizes how crucial this four-game stretch is than Dallas coach Lindy Ruff.

"When we tried to set some goals, we talked about trying to win three out of four," Ruff said. "If we can have a good finish before the break here it sets us up. And it's really a must because otherwise you're chasing it too much."

After a 3-2 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday at American Airlines Center, the Stars finished their five-game homestand at 3-1-1. Dallas enters the weekend six points behind the Vancouver Canucks for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

However, after being home since last Tuesday, Dallas now hits the road. Earlier in the season the Stars were a solid road team, but they currently are on a five-game winless streak (0-4-1) away from home and haven't won on the road in 2014, their record dipping to 11-12-3. All of that makes this final pre-Olympic push even more crucial for their playoff chances.

Defenseman Alex Goligoski joined his teammates in saying they need to finish strong because none of them know exactly what to expect once they return to the ice Feb. 27 against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"It's really big. I don't know if anyone really knows what it's going to be like after the break when we get back with a lot of guys having two weeks without playing," Goligoski said. "How are teams going to come back out of that? So we've got to get ourselves in a position where we can move up a few points in the standings before that Olympic break so we can enjoy our break, feel good about [things] and come back here and get ready for that crazy last 30 [games] or whatever it's going to be. These next four games are huge."

The Stars began 2014 with six straight losses, their longest regulation losing streak since December 1995. But to their credit they finished the month on a decent run, with consecutive home wins against the Minnesota Wild, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, outscoring them 14-1, before a tough 4-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Monday and the overtime loss to the Devils on Thursday.

One reason for ongoing optimism heading into this stretch is the Stars started turning things around because their special teams began to click. In their past seven games Dallas is 8-for-24 (33.3 percent) on the power play and its penalty kill has killed 17 of the last 20 opposing power plays (85 percent).

That marked upswing is due to one simple change, according to veteran center Shawn Horcoff.

"We became a lot more aggressive on the penalty kill, which I think has helped, and the power play, just pucks are going in. I think we've got a couple of units that are comfortable with each other. Went through a long period of constantly changing personnel and I think that worked itself out," Horcoff said.

But Horcoff knows if his team is serious about ending a five-year postseason dry spell, there's no time like the present to start such a run.

"There's a lot of games obviously when we come back, but at the same time it's just so tight that you can't wait until the last 10 games to make ground up," he said. "You've got to try to slowly do it so you don't have go on a 10-, 11-game run to do it. We've been playing well actually lately. We've been doing a lot of good things and obviously feel we need to continue to play the same way."

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