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Stars' win after break is big, but there's still room to grow

Despite not being perfect or pretty, Dallas' performance in a shutout victory over Buffalo was effective

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

If we are completely honest with each other, maybe the thing we really learned in the first 50 games of this season is that the time for the Dallas Stars to win is now.

It was a message delivered from the top down, and despite any sort of pleasantries since, it is a message that is burning within the Victory Green fiber of the organization.

And it should be. Ben Bishop is 32. So is Alexander Radulov. Jamie Benn is 29. If you want that trio to be a big part of your run for the Stanley Cup, the time is nigh, to borrow a recent hockey colloquialism. So, yes, there is tension and pressure, and the rush to frustration when things don't go your way.

That's real.

But what the Stars have tried to do during their little hiatus is take control of that mindset, and at the very least, manage it better.

Video: Montgomery discusses solid game for Stars in win

It's clear with head coach Jim Montgomery, who said Wednesday morning that he wanted to concentrate on his team and not worry too much about the opposition. It's clear with GM Jim Nill, who said this week it is on the organization to prove to outsiders that it isn't dysfunctional. And it's clear with the players, who had a no-nonsense attitude coming back from the break and winning a 1-0 game over the Buffalo Sabres Wednesday.

It wasn't perfect. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't particularly exciting. But it was effective. The Stars tore out of the gate, did a lot of the things they worked on in practice for three days, and established a real edge against a Buffalo team coming off a 5-4 win in Columbus on Tuesday.

While it's generally good to get a team on the second night of a back-to-back, it wasn't good on Wednesday. The Sabres are fighting for a playoff spot in the East, and they felt pretty good about their game. So playing for the first time in 10 days against an opponent that was flying wasn't the easiest test for Dallas.

The Stars knew that and responded with a serious attitude that fit the situation. You can argue they didn't do that against Philadelphia or St. Louis or Los Angeles in losses before the break. You can argue it might be the biggest flaw on this team so far this season.

So when they do it, you have to take note and say, "this is different."

Video: BUF@DAL: Bishop shuts down Sabres in shutout win

"I think the first period was our best period, and I think we could have been up by quite a bit," Montgomery said. "You expect after a long layoff that you're not at game speed but I give our players credit. We had three great practices at a high pace, so we felt that we were prepared and the players played confidently right from the start, which was great to see."

The only thing that wasn't great to see was that one goal-lead. Jamie Benn had a strong shift and built on the game he had against Winnipeg, scoring off a nice pass from Taylor Fedun at the 8:39 mark of the first period. But then … crickets.

The Stars created chances, they played with speed, they followed the game plan to a tee. But they didn't score again.

And that can be frustrating.

Except we've seen where that frustration can lead. You start worrying about what you're not doing, and that brings negativity to the situation. You start squeezing the stick, and it makes it even harder to score. You start thrashing about in quicksand, and you have much larger issues.

Video: BUF@DAL: Benn tucks home Fedun's dish to open scoring

And the Stars seem to have learned that.

After getting just one goal Wednesday, the players were philosophical.

"We have a lot of guys in here that can score a lot of goals. I'm not too worried about the goal production," said goalie Ben Bishop, who had 30 saves for his 27th career shutout. "Any given night, these guys can break out. They've done it before. We've seen it this year. You're going to find different ways to win each night.

"If we can get a 1-0 win, we'll take it, because some nights we're going to need some more [goals] and these guys are going to be there for us."

Added Fedun: "The last few games, I think we have tried to play quicker and support each other out there. We know the goals are going to come, but if we keep playing like that, we're OK winning games 1-0 if we have to do that."

Video: Benn and Bishop go beast mode again

It is spin, but it's also self-preservation. They won and moved to 25-21-4. They pushed themselves ahead of the wild-card gaggle and draw closer to third-place Minnesota, who will be in town Friday for a huge battle.

You could get sucked into the pressure, into the win now, into the blame-game for not scoring. But this team has seen where that negativity led. They don't want that going forward.

Pressure is part of pro sports, so you have to be able to live inside that environment. But hockey is a fast game, and you have to be able to live inside that environment, too. The Stars, for the past two games, have looked a lot more comfortable with the speed of the game, with the intensity of the game, with the importance of the game.

And if they can build on that one game at a time, that might be a pretty good plan.

"In the third period, I thought we sat back a little bit, which took away from us gaining opportunities," Montgomery said of something he thinks the team can improve upon.

Video: Oleksiak awarded cowboy hat in return to Stars

Play more like they did in the first period, and do it for 60 minutes. It's a step-by-step focus.

Asked in the morning if he liked the chemistry of Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov, Montgomery joked, "Ask me in 10 games."

Consistency, he said, they need to find consistency.

Because that's how they'll avoid frustration.

"If we keep playing good defense, we're going to get offense," the coach said. "And that's got to be our identity moving forward."

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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