Game 3 of the 2023 Western Conference Final was a total disaster for the Stars.

The Stars allowed the first goal just 71 seconds into the game. Jamie Benn took a five-minute major penalty that led to a two-game suspension. Jake Oettinger gave up three goals on five shots and was pulled for the third time in the postseason, all in an eight-game span. And Dallas dropped a 4-0 loss at home to fall into an 0-3 series hole against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Now, the lads in Victory Green would push the series to six games before succumbing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but there was a lot of pain in the lessons learned that day.

A year later, those lessons have become apparent.

Stars forward Jason Robertson was asked before Game 2 on Saturday what makes this team different from that one, and he said it’s simple.

“We’re a better team now than we were last year,” Robertson said. “The mentality of this group is stronger, and I think that’s been the way all year. We haven’t let stuff get away from us.”

Robertson and Johnston on bouncing back from Game 1

It makes a lot of sense. The Stars last season were under a first-year coaching staff led by Pete Deboer. They had some young faces in Wyatt Johnston, followed by Thomas Harley in the playoffs. They were challenging up-and-coming superstars like Robertson and Oettinger to take on a bigger role. There was a lot going on.

Fast forward a year, and a lot has changed. DeBoer has added to his staff and driven his message even deeper into the players. Johnston and Harley are now six rounds deep into their respective playoff careers and getting more comfortable with the responsibility. Oettinger and Robertson have been through the mental gymnastics of dealing with slumps, and have come out on the good side.

“There’s no doubt we’re a different team. We’re a deeper team, we’re a better team,” DeBoer said. “Having been here working with the group for two years in a row as a staff, I think we’re all better for that continuity.”

The WCF created an environment where the Stars really were left believing there was work to do. DeBoer added to his staff with old friend Misha Donskov, who helped Vegas win the Cup last season. GM Jim Nill added more depth signings from the free agent market by signing Matt Duchene, Sam Steel and Craig Smith. DeBoer and Nill together added a large support group in the conditioning and training departments.

It has made a significant difference.

Mix in the fact that the players here have all been able to get more used to the teachings and styles of DeBoer and assistants Steve Spott and Alain Nasreddine, and you can see the progress.

“How coaches respond, what they expect out of us, it’s all more routine,” said forward Ty Dellandrea. “We know how they operate, it’s been two years now. We have a lot of confidence in them and I think they have a lot of confidence in us. It’s a good relationship.”

Dellandrea on staying focused during playoff run.

And that’s not the only place experience has helped. Oettinger had a 3.06 GAA and .895 save percentage in the playoffs last season. He’s at 2.04 and .922 this year. His Game 2 performance was spectacular for a lot of reasons. One, the team definitely didn’t need to go down 0-2 in the series and was outshot 16-4 in the first period. Oettinger made sure things didn’t fall apart by stopping 15 of those shots and letting the Stars get their footing.

That’s huge for a group that has shown the ability to right the ship when given the chance.

“He was our best player tonight and he allowed us to weather the storm in the first, get our legs under us, and find a way to get control of that game,” DeBoer said.

Pete DeBoer speaks to the media after Game 2

And he’s doing that while working through some serious mental challenges over the past 12 months.

Likewise, Benn has learned from last season. He has found a way to ride the line between physicality and control, and he has dragged his teammates along for the ride without dragging them through the mud.

“He’s led the way all year and in particular in the playoffs,” said DeBoer. “He’s changed the momentum of each of the series in different ways. A couple of huge hits in the Vegas series, in the Colorado series it was a huge goal here or a big play, a big block. Then tonight just getting that line going and getting some o-zone time because I felt we spent the entire first period in our own end. That was kind of setting the tone for the other forward lines. This is how we need to play.”

As the Stars head to Edmonton for Game 3 this year, the vibe is totally different. There is no panic. The team is 5-1 on the road this postseason, including winning Games 3 and 4 in both series against Vegas and Colorado. There is confidence, there is calm, there is zen.

“It’s part of our veteran group,” said Dellandrea. “You lose any game . . . you can’t ride those ups and downs, you have to stay level-headed. Our leaders do a good job of guiding us through that.”

That’s been a great trademark of this new-look Stars squad. It’s been a mindset that has been more than a year in the making. Yes, key individuals have improved or matured, but the team as a whole also is different. On the game-winning goal Saturday, the snapshot of the celebration is a microcosm of what the Stars have become. In the group hug is Mason Marchment, Steel, Dellandrea, Alexander Petrovic and Ryan Suter. That is real depth coming through in the clutch.

“We’ve talked about the importance of our depth, and I have no problem going to a guy like Delly who hasn’t played since the Colorado series,” DeBoer said. “I think our group understands and has accepted the fact that if they’re in, they are going to give us everything they have and if they’re not, they are going to be ready for when they do get called.”

Petrovic has stepped in and given Dallas the ability to play six defensemen in a rotation. Dellandrea has alternated with players like Radek Faksa and Smith to give Dallas arguably the best forward depth in the playoffs. Heck, the Stars have the AHL MVP in Mavrik Bourque at the ready if they need him.

It was a much different story last year.

It’s interesting to watch teams build and grow and blossom. The 1999 Stars had to get to the WCF and lose to Detroit before they were ready to advance. This team is similar. They have earned the scar tissues, they have slowed the pulse, they have found their balance.

They still have a long way to go, but it feels good, it feels right, it feels different.

As Robertson said, they’re a better team than they were last year.

In so many different ways.

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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