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Are we having fun yet? For Stars, the answer is yes

Montgomery is maintaining a loose, upbeat environment in practice while Dallas works through an 0-2-1 dip

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- There is much introspection for the Stars this week.

They are in an 0-2-1 slump, but still playing pretty good hockey. So why has that happened, what does it mean and how does Dallas push up to the next level of play?

The Stars on Monday kept the coaches in the stands and let the players "play" on the ice. The team was divided into Team North America and Team Europe and after some player-run drills, they scrimmaged in a 3-on-3 battle. Team Europe won, but both sides were able to get a boost in energy and spirit.

 

[GAME DAY GUIDE: Everything you need to know for Stars' matchup with Jets]

 

"We think that the team is confident, we're playing well, and sometimes you need to be a kid again," Stars coach Jim Montgomery said of the reason for the off-day fun.

Dallas is coming off a 3-2 shootout loss in Minnesota on Sunday. The Stars took a 3-1 loss at home to St. Louis before that and a 3-0 loss in Chicago before that. The three-game run comes on the heels of an 11-0-1 stretch, but it hammers home just how important every point is in the standings. Had Dallas taken down the Blues, they could have moved to within two points of first place in the division. As it is now, Dallas is seven points behind St. Louis and in the first wild-card playoff spot in the West.

Video: Stars split squad for 3-on-3 tournament at practice

"Obviously, we need to start winning some hockey games here, because it's funny, we're 0-2-1 and all of the sudden you're a wild-card team … it happens quick," Montgomery said. "But, most importantly, we're worried about where we're going and how we're going to get there, and that's what we continue to work on."

Montgomery stressed the team can address both short-term and long-term issues. Yes, they need to win games and take points, but they also need to do that in a manner that allows them to embrace the identity of an aggressive defensive team that can convert its scoring chances. Montgomery likes to use the phrase "B-minus game" for one that is good, but could be better.

Asked if these past three games fall into that category, he said yes, but added that a previous win at home against Chicago also was suspicious. In each one of the games, Dallas was pushed hard. Sometimes, it responded well. Sometimes, it didn't.

He said that's better than last season, when the bad games were more recognizable. This year, the Stars are more consistent in generating scoring chances and in forcing bad plays from the opposition, but that still leaves games that are far too up for grabs.

"I think that's pretty accurate, and that's a development of our game," Montgomery said when asked about B-minus. "Our game management is significantly improved…consistency…playing to our identity. Last year when we didn't play well, it seemed we never had the puck. Now when we have our B-minus games, we still have the puck our share of the game. But the evolution of our game is to be even better at those elements, so that our B-minus games can end up more Ws."


Players said they too feel they are refining their games at a more precise place, and that's one reason the fun practice on Monday was appreciated.

"I liked our Chicago game. I thought St. Louis outworked us a little bit, Minnesota was a good game," said forward Andrew Cogliano. "It's not like you were out there after any of our games asking, `What the heck is going on?' But these are big games and we want to get a win. I think the build-up to St. Louis was very big, and we just kind of let ourselves down a little bit. So you're close, so let's not blow it out of proportion, but let's also go work and get better."

Just as it was with the Blues game, the Stars on Tuesday will be able to see someone just above them in the standings. The Jets have 33 points in 27 games, the Stars have 33 points in 28 games. That means the outcome of this home-and-home will have an effect on the immediate standings.

"When you're playing Central Division teams, there are no easy games," Montgomery said.

The Stars are in a stretch of five in a row against the Central and seven out of eight. Dallas is now 5-3-2 against the Central Division on the season and 11-3-3 against the Western Conference, so it needs to continue that kind of run.

Video: Stars enjoy fun practice ahead of matchup at Winnipeg

Those are the points that will ensure this team gets back to the playoffs this season.

"These are two big games, and we know that," Cogliano said.

That said, two games where the team would like to calmly address a few of the shortcomings that have popped up during this period of introspection.

"I think it's tough to be on all of the time," Cogliano said. "Everyone at some point just needs to have some perspective and relax. You still need to go out there and feel good and skate and touch the puck, but games are tough to be honest with you, and sometimes you need to take it a little lighter."

Because there will be plenty of need for energy on Tuesday.

 

Stars (15-10-3) at Jets (16-10-1)

Tuesday, 7 p.m. CT

Where: Bell MTS Place

TV/radio: FOX Sports Southwest; KTCK 1310-AM, 96.7-FM

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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