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Battling adversity for first time this season, Stars determined to overcome it

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

If the true mark of a good team is how it handles adversity, then we’re about to find out just what the Dallas Stars are really made of.

Following a heart-breaking 3-2 overtime defeat to Phoenix Wednesday night, the Stars were mired in a 1-5-1 tailspin that has seen their once-comfortable lead atop the Pacific Division standings disappear. After three division rivals won Wednesday, the Stars were tied with San Jose for the top spot (and third in the Western Conference), with the Coyotes one point back and Anaheim three behind. Dallas holds just a five-point lead over ninth-place Minnesota.

But although the Stars, deploying a lineup depleted by several key injuries that has forced the club to utilize up to three minor league call-ups at a time, are in the midst of experiencing their toughest part of the season, they remain a determined and confident group.

“I think we know we have a good group in here,” said veteran fourth-line forward Brian Sutherby. “I think all teams go through this during the course of the year. We were pretty healthy for a long stretch there, and now we’ve got our bumps and bruises and we’ve got to battle through it. It’s going to help us in the long run because some of these (AHL call-up) guys are getting games and down the stretch and into the playoffs, you’re going to need a lot of these guys. There’s always injuries and it can only help us.”

“It’s tough times right now, but that’s the way it is sometimes,” added defenseman Nicklas Grossman, who earned a nice assist on Brad Richards’ goal that put Dallas up 2-1 in the second period Wednesday. “I think it’s just how you respond that kind of shows what kind of team you got. I know we got a great group of guys and everyone wants to win. We just got to keep staying positive, stay together, keep plugging away and just find a way. Everyone wants to win and we can’t start hanging our heads right now. Just stay positive and keep working and eventually, it’ll turn for us.”

It’s the old theory that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the Stars refuse to use the absence of important forwards Jamie Benn, Adam Burish, Tom Wandell (who just returned Wednesday from a four-game absence), Toby Petersen, and enforcer Krys Barch as an excuse for their current dilemma. 

“We just need to realize that everyone else is collecting points and we’re not,” said captain Brenden Morrow, who leads the team with 23 goals through 54 games. “We can’t have excuses or think, ‘Well, what if this guy was in the lineup or what if that guy?’ We can’t feel sorry for ourselves, because no one else is. I think those are all things that we need to keep in our mind and not worry about who’s in our lineup.”

“You got to concentrate on what you have, not what you don’t have and that’s a bit of our mantra,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said. We’ve got a lot going for us. We’ve got three guys in the top 20 scoring in the league in our lineup tonight. Brenden is 13th in goal-scoring in the NHL, we’ve got the same defense that we’ve had all year. We’ve got one of the best goaltenders in the league, so most teams would be really thrilled to have what we have. Nobody else is going to feel sorry for us - we’re not going to feel sorry for us, it’s the wrong way to be. You’ve got to concentrate on what you’ve got and you go out and do your job.” 

And as the playoff race tightens and intensifies, the Stars know they have to keep pace and start picking up some more points, starting with their next matchup, Friday night at the American Airlines Center against defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago (7:30 pm start, FSSW), who is six points back of Dallas in 11th.

“Teams are going to go through these times where it’s going to be a little tougher to get points, but that was a big point we got (Wednesday), it keeps us right there at the top of the division,” said Richards, the Stars’ top scorer with 61 points, good for sixth in the entire NHL. “We’re not going anywhere. It’s another big game Friday.  We’re going to keep building on positives. I think overall, we got to be a little more desperate in certain areas, offensively and defensively, but we’ll be fine.” 

“We’ve been scoreboard-watching since December, basically,” Morrow noted. “The Western Conference, there’s so much competition to get in that eighth spot, if you’re losing three or four in a row, it’s just making it harder on ourselves.”

But even though the club is in a bit of a slump, they’ve played well their last couple of games, particularly Wednesday night against Phoenix, where one play either way decided the game. In that one, it was an ill-advised tripping penalty to Jamie Langenbrunner with 19 seconds left in regulation that ultimately doomed them, leading to Radim Vrbata’s overtime power play winner. 
“It was a tight game,” Richards said. “It seems a lot of those are like that against Phoenix and we’re going to be in a lot of those down the stretch. Some of those are going to go our way and we’ll have some where we battled hard, a couple of mistakes here and there, they capitalized, and we had our opportunities and we didn’t. We’re not going to hang our heads here, we’re going to keep going.”

“I liked our work ethic and if we work like that most nights like that, we’re going to be pretty good,” Crawford added regarding the loss to the Coyotes. “It seemed like there were a lot of times where we had opportunities and we missed the net, when we made great decisions to get the puck in deep, it went off the separators in the glass. That happened three times and one resulted in a penalty, one resulted in a goal to them, and it just didn’t allow us to get the forecheck going. 

“Sometimes that’s puck luck and sometimes you just have to continue to really look and focus and say, ‘Hey, are we doing enough things right?’ Well, we’re not doing enough things right because we’re not getting the win, but I think it’s a step in the right direction, and I don’t usually say that if I don’t mean it.”

Keeping a positive mindset also means that, despite the lack of favorable results lately, the players are not looking to change too much, feeling confident in themselves that if they do the things that got them this far, they’ll be all right. Crawford pointed to the fact that Phoenix wound up 2-for-3 on the power play as an example.

“As much as we got two scored on us, we actually did some great things on the penalty kill,” Crawford said. “Sometimes your success is right around the corner on your special teams and we have to continue to focus on process. If you start to press a little bit and not trust what you’re doing, that’s when you get into real problems. We’ll look at it again and we just have to keep believing that success on the special teams is right around the corner.” 

To get through this rough patch, the guys still in the lineup simply have to bear down and battle their way past it.

“It’s not going to happen by itself,” Grossman stressed. “You just can’t just show up to the rink and it’ll just happen. You have to commit to put the work in, pay attention to details, all that. We know how to play, it’s not about that, it’s just putting it all together again. And we played a solid game (Wednesday). We knew it was going to be a tight game and there were opportunities here and there, you just got to find a way. We got a great group of guys in here, we’re just trying to stay positive, work hard, and get ready for Friday.” 

“We all know that our team has good chemistry and guys really care for each other and they play hard for each other,” Crawford said. “That’s what you need in the best of times and that’s what you need, especially when times aren’t so good.”

“We know that this last 30 games is the big tough stretch and we know we got to be our best every night,” added Sutherby. “We know how important the wins are and if we can get through it, we’ll be fine.” 

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