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Whatever the reason, Stars have playoff look again

by Brian Hedger
The Dallas Stars have a catch phrase they're using to explain how they currently sit atop the Pacific Division halfway through the NHL's 82-game regular season.
It's a single, simple word: "Naïve."
As in, the surging young Stars, as a group, are just too carefree to realize how good they've been. Despite missing the playoffs the past two seasons and not re-signing franchise figureheads Mike Modano and Marty Turco, Dallas appears in good shape after 41 games -- with 52 points in the ultra-tight Western Conference.
How are they doing it?
Just ask one of the veterans who isn't too green to realize what's happening in the Big D.
"Maybe we're just naïve a bit, because we don't know exactly what we're going through," said 30-year old Stars captain Brenden Morrow, now an elder statesmen and leader for Dallas without Turco, Modano and the retired Jere Lehtinen around. "We can just ... not worry so much and push ahead. The question's been asked a lot, 'What has changed from last year?' and I don't think there's been a whole lot. We can't point our finger at one or two guys. It's been a team effort in every sense of the word and different heroes on different nights."

Some nights it's Morrow (17 goals, 27 points) or Brad Richards (18 goals, 47 points) -- a veteran free-agent-to-be who's shining despite once being the subject of trade speculation. Other nights, the heroes are dynamic young forward Loui Eriksson (16 goals, 44 points), recharged veteran Mike Ribeiro (8 goals, 34 points) or youngsters James Neal (14 goals, 30 points) and Jamie Benn (9 goals, 24 points).

Dallas also added to its depth up front by completing a trade Friday for Jamie Langenbrunner, originially a draft pick of the team almost 18 years ago who has gone on to win Stanley Cups with both the Stars and the Devils.

The team is also getting solid play along the blue line, most notably from Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, Matt Niskanen and Karlis Skrastins.
"They made a few changes, but you look at their top two lines and they're as good as anybody's top two lines," Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said before a 4-2 loss to the Stars on Wednesday. "After that, they've got some balance. Their defense is pretty steady. They play a real patient game and a smart game and give themselves a chance. They're at the top of their division for a lot of reasons."
Another of those reasons -- and a very important one -- is the goaltending situation, which couldn't get much better.
Dallas starter Kari Lehtonen (17-10-4) and backup Andrew Raycroft (7-3-0) are one of the League's most solid tandems. Both have "stolen" wins when the Stars probably shouldn't have won or even gotten a point -- and Raycroft filled in admirably for four games that Lehtonen missed in early December with a lower-body injury.
"Our goaltending's been very strong throughout -- both of them, whether it's been Kari or Andrew," Richards said. "That's huge. That gives us added confidence out there, where we don't panic."
The win in Chicago on Wednesday -- game No. 41 -- was a perfect example.
After taking a 2-0 lead in the first period, Lehtonen allowed two quick goals midway through the second to tie the game. He was also nearly was beaten a third time on a Blackhawks penalty shot by Viktor Stalberg that clipped both posts and the crossbar.
Instead of falling apart, Lehtonen didn't allow another goal and made several key stops late in the third, with at least one during a power play for Chicago -- which was the League's best team with the man-advantage.
That win not only gave Dallas a 24-13-4 overall record, but also improved two impressive situational records. Morrow scored the first goal just 2:40 into the first period, which bumped up the Stars' record when scoring first to a pristine 18-2-0.
They also improved to 9-3-2 in games tied after two periods. What's the secret?
It could be that whole "too-young-to-know-better" thing, or it could just be that after two gut-wrenching seasons of having second-half collapses kill their playoff hopes, the Stars are simply more motivated to make the postseason a reality.
Hardly anybody predicted Dallas to do much this season, especially after Turco and Modano left. Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk replaced them with the unheralded Raycroft and checking forward Adam Burish -- a "sandpaper" guy with a gift for gab, who came to Dallas on the heels of winning the Stanley Cup as a fourth-line forward with Chicago.
Add it all up and you can see why Stars coach Marc Crawford prefers another word over "naïve" to describe the transformation.
"It's humility more than anything," said Crawford, who compares this team to his Vancouver Canucks teams from 2000 to 2002. "It's missing the playoffs for a couple years and recognizing just how good the League is. We've hit hurdles a couple of times where we've used the experiences of the last few seasons to benefit us. That's where the humility comes in. They understand the situation."
Indeed, the Stars have overcome two three-game losing streaks in the first half.
The first came after they'd won five of their first six games -- they dropped three straight home games to the Nashville Predators, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. Dallas responded by winning its next three straight, all at home, including a win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The second three-game skid immediately followed, with all three of those losses on the road -- culminating with a 4-2 defeat on Nov.12 at Anaheim. Again, the Stars' response was noteworthy. Since that point, Dallas has gone 15-6-4 -- including a six-game winning streak from Nov. 24 to Dec. 4.
The Stars also have a pair of three-game win streaks in the first half, plus a four-game win streak to start the season. Crawford sees that as a huge difference.
"We never got on a roll last year like we needed to," he said. "Eighty-eight points and never getting on a roll -- if we'd gotten on one roll, we were a playoff team."
Likewise, they probably would've made it without a pair of ugly losing streaks sandwiched around the Olympic break. Dallas appeared to be in good position to make the playoffs all the way into January last season before everything fell apart.
The Stars' attitude this season stems from that collapse, along with a similar second-half flop the year before.

"We never got on a roll last year like we needed to. Eighty-eight points and never getting on a roll -- if we'd gotten on one roll, we were a playoff team."
-- Stars head coach Marc Crawford

"The frustration got to us and there was a lot of negative," said Ribeiro, who worked even harder in the offseason to prepare for this campaign. "When you lose games, it's easy to pinpoint the wrong things and point fingers at each other. This year, we came in with a different mentality -- to stay positive no matter what. I think it's been helping us a lot."
Along that line of thinking, the Stars refuse to look past the next game on the schedule. It's hard to even get them to acknowledge their stats thus far. They are focused and driven -- yet still have their share of doubters.
"We know that's the case, but we don't really care," Morrow said. "What is said or written about us is not going to define us. What we do on the ice and how we finish these next (41) games is what's going to make the difference -- not what's going to be written on paper. If that's what people believe, fine. We're believing in ourselves, and with every win we get a little bit more belief."
Richards, the League's sixth-leading scorer, concurred.
"As good as we played to get (52) points, we're going to have to get another 50 points to guarantee ourselves a playoff spot," he said. "We're not reading about ourselves or patting ourselves on the back yet. It's keeping us honest."
It's also keeping them hungry. Naïve, humble or however they want to describe themselves, the Stars are clearly on a mission. And it doesn't seem like much will distract them in the second half.
"Everybody reads the internet and sees the stuff where people said, 'You guys are going to finish at the bottom, you guys are no good, you guys don't have a chance,'" said Burish, who feels the same kind of brotherly bond here as he did with the Blackhawks. "Most of the season now, we've been playing with that chip on our shoulder, just going out and trying to shove it up people's backsides that have kind of written us off from the start. That can be fun sometimes."
So much fun, in fact, that both Richards and Morrow put this team's locker room chemistry among the best they've ever experienced. There's a mix of youngsters and veterans, grit and skill -- and enough locker room ring leaders to keep the mood up no matter what.
The value of that shouldn't be discounted, according to Richards.
"We're not having many bad days," he said. "Even if we have to come in on New Year's Day and practice, we're all there having fun and we know it's going to make us better. Some teams, it's not like that. There's a lot of complaining about coming in on New Year's Day. The other day we came in and had fun, and we came out with a big win in St. Louis (on Jan. 2). We're accepting different things and realizing that as long as we're having fun together, all the other stuff doesn't really matter."

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