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Tippett, Stars stayed the course, discovered success

by Adam Kimelman

The decision by Dallas Stars management to stick with head coach Dave Tippett has paid off with a return to the Western Conference Final.
Stars-Sharks Game 6 highlights 
Starting the season 7-7-3, players on the Dallas Stars’ roster knew a change was coming somewhere.
“Things weren’t going great for us at the time,” said team captain Brenden Morrow. “We knew a change was going to be happening. If it was personnel, player-wise, management, coach, we didn’t know at what level.”
The change came in the general manager’s office, as Doug Armstrong was relieved of his duties Nov. 13, replaced by co-GM’s Les Jackson and Brett Hull.
The new pair could have continued the sweeping changes -- which also included team president Jim Lites being moved to another aspect of owner Tom Hicks’ sports empire -- by changing coaches.
Instead, Jackson and Hull stood by fifth-year coach Dave Tippett, and have been rewarded with the team’s first trip to the Western Conference Finals since 2000.
“He’s got our backing 100 percent,” Hull said at the time. “He still has fresh ideas and we believe wholeheartedly he can lead this team to where we want to go.”
Even without those strong words of support, Tippett says he never spent time worrying about his own job security.
“I never worry about the pink slip,” he said. “If that comes, that comes. I think when you’re a coach in any professional sport; you get very thick-skinned to that stuff. You have to be secure in what you’re doing every day.”
And if every day seems like the next for the Stars players and their coach, there’s a reason for that.
“It wasn't our philosophy and how to play the game, our system or his approach to the leaders, the young guys (that) was wrong,” goaltender Marty Turco said. “It's just that we weren't playing well.”
 “I don’t think his tactics have changed,” Morrow said. “The Stars, our system has been kind of the same since I’ve been a part of the team in 2000. There’s been some tweaks here and there, but the strength of our team is still our checking, our goaltending, our defending, trying to capitalize on mistakes. And that’s been bred into us from (Ken) Hitchcock’s days and Tipp’s carried them through.
“I don’t think his tactics, demeanor or attitude has really changed.”
There’s a reason for that – in four previous seasons, the Stars have won nearly 58 percent of their games (190-91-28-19) under Tippett, and have gone to the playoffs four-straight seasons.
Tippett and the Stars have won consistently in the regular season, but have been making consistently early exits in the playoffs. The club has lost in the first round each of the past three seasons.
Despite that, Tippett has stayed true to what he believes works – and he believes his system works.
“I was fortunate my first year here, Bob Gainey was a consultant with us,” Tippett said. “He told me … the regular season is to prove you're capable of doing what you need to do in the playoffs. That's been my philosophy every year. You get into the playoffs the first step, then what you do in there, you try to give yourself a chance to win. I feel like we've done that every year. We've had some situations where we would certainly like to have been better. But if you just keep knocking at the door, you're going to get your opportunity.”
He’s getting that opportunity now with a team few picked to be one of the final four squads standing.
In the first round, the fifth-seeded Stars upset fourth-seeded Anaheim, the defending Stanley Cup champions, in six games. They capped a six-game victory against Pacific Division-champion San Jose with a four-overtime thriller won by Morrow’s team-best seventh playoff goal.
Next is the Detroit Red Wings, this season’s Presidents’ Trophy winner.
“If we’re going to go up the food chain, might as well eat the best,” Tippett said with a laugh.
At times this season, it looked like the Stars would be the prey, rather than the predator.
The front-office changes sparked the team, as the Stars reeled off a 16-6-1 streak to take the Pacific Division lead when the calendar flipped to 2008. But they struggled down the stretch, going 4-9-1 to end the regular season.
All the while, though, Tippett never showed an ounce of worry to his players.
“He has been very consistent,” Turco said. “I think that’s part of the belief system we’ve had. When you don't win, you’ve got to take a look in the mirror, second-guess a little bit. But at the end of the day, we all believed we were doing the right things. Not till now are we reaping the rewards of it all. That's part of belief system we had over the years in order to get us to this point.”
Turco has been a big part of the Stars getting to this point. The netminder is second among playoff goalies with a 1.73 goals-against average, and fourth with a .929 save percentage.
Leading the offense have been Morrow and Brad Richards, a trade-deadline acquisition who had five assists in his first game with the Stars, and then had just two goals and six points in his final 11 games.
In the playoffs, though, Richards has nine assists and 11 points in 12 games, and looks like the player who won the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup.
“I look at it when the regular season ended -- and Richards is a perfect example -- it was like a new start for everybody,” Tippett said. “We got through March, we had some adversity. … We looked at it as the regular season was his first season with our team, and the postseason was going to be his second. He's come out and played that way. He feels like he's part of the team. Our whole team has looked at it as the regular season is done. Now we have a whole new time to prove ourselves.
"He’s got our backing 100 percent". -- Stars Co-General Manager Bret Hull
Morrow, the do-everything captain, is earning Conn Smythe talk himself for his play.
“When you see a player play that hard, play that determined, willing to do whatever it takes, whether it's finding a big hit, blocking a shot, scoring a goal, whatever it takes to be successful, that's very infectious within your group,” Tippett said. “That (San Jose) series, it's been a long time since I've seen a player play as well in a series or have as much of as impact on a series as Brenden has.”
The captain is just as complimentary of his coach.
“I think he did a great job of, if there was extra pressure on him, he just kind of went about business as usual and kept things behind closed doors and didn’t bring any of that into the locker room,” Morrow said.
Win or lose, Tippett has kept things moving the same direction he’s had them going since he started in Dallas.
“I like to think I’m a very methodical guy, I like to think things out,” he said. “But losing bothers you. If you’re in the business I’m in, or a hockey player, losing just digs at you. But you don’t lose patience. I look at it, they, make me more determined. … When it doesn’t go well, it’s frustrating, but it makes you want to do it that much more the next time.”
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