Their gutsy 4-1 triumph in Detroit Thursday night snapped a five-game losing streak and interrupted a 1-8-1 slide since the All-Star break, but even more importantly, lifted them back into a playoff position in the ultra-tight Western Conference standings.
As one of five different teams tied with 70 points ranging from sixth to 10th, the Stars got some desperately-needed points to keep pace, and hope that the win over the Central Division-leading Red Wings will be the catalyst to a much-needed upsurge.
Back at their practice facility in the Dr Pepper Arena in Frisco on Friday, the Stars were in an upbeat mood and felt confident they’d turned things around.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if we played St. Mary’s School for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, we needed a win last night and it is great that it came against one of the better teams in the league,” coach Marc Crawford said. “Now we’ve got to keep the momentum going. We had a good practice today. We’re concentrating on doing the things that hopefully give us a chance to win and I think it starts by taking care of your own end, if you play great in the defensive zone. If you outnumber the opposition when they have the puck, you’ve got the possibility to swarm them on the puck and don’t give them enough time to make quality plays, so our defensive positioning has been very good of late.
“We have to continue to do that, and if we can limit the opposition to a short number of chances, if we can do ourselves a huge favor and not be killing penalties all the time, then that helps us even more. And then the best part of (Thursday) night was how hard we worked. We worked hard for the chances that we got, we worked very hard to put ourselves in good position when it came.”
With their next game coming against another team they’re tied with in the West playoff race, the Nashville Predators Saturday afternoon (1 pm start, TXA-21), the games will only continue to get bigger and bigger down the stretch.
“Each game individually poses a great challenge,” Crawford said. “You’ve got two teams tied in points playing (Saturday). I expect it to be a close, hard-fought battle and our guys have to prepare for a close, hard-fought battle. What’s the difference between playing like that and playing a team like Detroit? I don’t think a great deal. With Nashville, it’s going to be a tight game, and we have to have the same type of attention, if not even greater attention in our preparation for this game.”
One recent positive has also been the return to the lineup of several players who missed large chunks of time with injuries. Toby Petersen
returned from a lengthy absence five games ago, Jamie Benn
was back in the lineup Tuesday after missing 10 games and gritty wingers Adam Burish
and Krys Barch returned to action against Detroit. Getting four key forwards back within such a short timeframe had a huge impact.
“That was large, if for nothing else, just for the enthusiasm that they brought to the bench,” Crawford said of the infusion of energy the new guys brought. “I thought they both gave us spirited effort and when you have Krys Barch scoring a goal, he doesn’t score a lot, that’s a huge boost for your team.”
And while leading scorer Brad Richards (concussion-like symptoms) and top-pair defenseman Nicklas Grossman (hip) remain out, they are both improving and should be out for that much longer.
“Brad is getting better, he’s improving, there’s not much more to tell you,” Crawford said Friday. “He’s not going to play tomorrow. We’re hopeful that Sunday is an even better day for him.
Grossman is improving on a daily basis. I believe he’s skating today.”
Of course, there are plenty of other players battling through various ailments that aren’t quite bad enough to force them to the sidelines.
“We’ve got a lot of guys playing with some burdens right now, as most teams do,” Crawford said. “We appreciate how hard guys like Morrow and Ott, and Wandell’s been a little under the weather the last few days, so we appreciate those guys gutting and digging in the way that they have. There’s a lot of guys that are in that category.
“Hopefully Tommy (Wandell) will be better tomorrow. Maybe Sutherby will be an option for us, he’s been really struggling with his groins and those sorts of things, so we’ve got a lot of guys playing at less than 100 percent, and we’ve got to keep pushing.”
The key for Crawford is that his troops have ratcheted up the work ethic in recent games, including during a hard-fought 1-0 loss to New Jersey Tuesday night that seemed to foreshadow their strong performance Thursday. And that’s a good sign with a stretch of games coming up on the schedule where the Stars face 10 straight Western Conference opponents that they are battling with for positioning.
“We hit our upstretch and after (the Detroit) game, we hope we’ve got things going in the right direction,” said Petersen. “And New Jersey too, we lost the game, but we did a lot of things really well, so I think that started the confidence going back up. And getting those guys back in the lineup helped as well, so hopefully, these next nine games are the catapult we need to put ourselves firmly in the playoffs.”
“We’ve been playing better of late and I do believe with the style of play that we’ve got, we’ve got to be hard-working, it’s just plain and simple,” Crawford added. “I’m not trying to downplay our talent, but it is hard work. Hard work seems to be the order of the day every place in the NHL right now and we have to have those hard-working efforts. If we can control what we do and how many opportunities the other team gets, usually our hard work will end up allowing us to generate some chances. It’s a simple formula, it makes a lot of sense, it’s hard work to get it to be executed at the level that we executed it (against Detroit).”
As long as they stay focused on the game plan and can maintain their strong work ethic for a full 60 minutes, like they did in Detroit and for the most part, also against New Jersey before that, the results should wind up in their favor more often than not.
“I think if you concentrate on the right things,” Crawford said, “and for us, that’s hard work and on the habits that we’ve got and real attention to playing without the puck and how we play in our own zone, it seems to me that with our club, the other stuff takes care of itself - the offensive creativity, the ability to generate scoring chances.
“One of the big parts of the formula is we have to stay out of the penalty box. We’ve flirted with some problems there. It cost us in the Jersey game, it didn’t cost us (Thursday) because we had a real good goaltending performance from Kari Lehtonen
and a hard-working performance from everybody else.”
With 21 games left in the regular season and 13 Western Conference clubs still very much in the playoff chase, the Stars are going to need that type of performance every night to finish in the final eight.
“We’re now in the last quarter,” Crawford said. “You look at a horse race, that’s usually when everybody starts to stand up, at least at the tracks I’ve been to. I don’t think it’s any different here.”