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Stars keep focus on themselves ahead of clash with Blues

Tied with St. Louis atop the Western Conference, Dallas isn't getting too caught up in the standings with 22 games still to go

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

It was the morning of Jan. 14 when the St. Louis Blues woke up with a 10-point lead over the Dallas Stars, and all seemed pretty much set in the world.

The defending Stanley Cup champions, who beat the Stars in double overtime of Game 7 in the second round of the 2019 playoffs, appeared ready to take the top seed in the Central Division while Colorado and Dallas would likely battle in the first round for the right to take on the Blues.

At least that's what we were all drawing up as we sat on the barstool or barber's chair.

But in the span of just over a month, the Stars have found a way to align their chaotic season and the Blues have stumbled at times, meaning that when the two teams meet Friday at American Airlines Center (and then again Feb. 29 in St. Louis), there will be a lot more on the line.

 

[GAME DAY GUIDE: Everything you need to know before Stars face Blues at American Airlines Center]

 

Win these two games, and you could go a long way toward winning a Central Division championship. Lose, and your opponent gets the leg up in trying to get not only another banner, but possibly a much better path in the playoffs.

And that should be something worth talking about, right?

It is, trust us, but the Stars have been able to make up all of this ground by keeping their head down and not looking up at the standings. They have 22 games remaining, and they are focused on gathering every point they can whether the opponent is fighting for the Central Division title, trying to get into the playoffs in the West, or scrambling at the bottom of the East.

Video: ARI@DAL: Bowness breaks down Stars' intense victory

"Until we get an 'X,' we expect our intensity to be the same as everyone else's," Stars interim coach Rick Bowness said in reference to the fact an "X" in the standings indicates a clinched playoff spot. "You can't look at a team and say 'They're fighting for a spot.' Well, so are we. We haven't done anything yet. We haven't."

The Stars have built a pretty good rivalry with the Blues, and nobody knows that better than goalie Ben Bishop, who grew up in St. Louis and lives there in the offseason with his family. But even Bishop said Friday's game is just one of 82.

"It should be a fun atmosphere. It always is a good atmosphere down here when we play the Blues," Bishop said. "It's a big game, and the next game after that is going to be important, too. That will be a fun one to play with the magnitude of it, but it's just two points at the end of the day."

And maybe that's the key for the Stars. Maybe they have made up this ground because they have been focused on themselves.

Truth be told, they have needed to focus on themselves. Bowness took over as head coach on Dec. 10 and has shuffled his lines and defensive pairs around. He had not deployed forwards on a regular basis since he was coach of the Coyotes back in 2004, so that was a transition. The organization handed responsibility for the defense over to John Stevens and called up Derek Laxdal from the AHL to help with the power play.

In the meantime, veterans Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski continued to work their way in with a new team, youngsters like Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov adapted to the NHL, and superstars Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg tried to adjust to the system and keep their numbers up.

"We keep as much focus on us and our play as anything," Bowness said of how much he looks at the standings or the trade deadline or even the next opponent. "Do we watch what the opposition is doing? Certainly, but not to the point that we can get distracted. If you get distracted by the other team, you take away from the details that you want your team to focus on."

Video: DAL@STL: Hintz beats Binnington for overtime winner

Now, that said, the players are aware that games are more intense, that opponents are fighting for playoff spots, that a few points one way or the other can mean the difference between home ice in the first round or starting on the road. They also are aware that this team still is forming, and that every game is an opportunity to help build chemistry.

"The games are harder, because everybody is battling for a playoff spot," said center Radek Faksa. "It's difficult, but no excuses. The schedule is tough, but we have guys who can step up. Every game, we have someone different stepping up."

Faksa, Perry and Jamie Oleksiak did that last game, scoring big goals. Esa Lindell logged almost 28 minutes of ice time. Alexander Radulov returned from a three-game injury hiatus and played 16:57 while recording an assist on the game-winning goal.

It really has been someone different every game.

And that's why the Stars are where they are right now, battling with the Blues and Avalanche for a possible division championship.

"I think we've put ourselves in a great spot, and that shows the character that we have in the dressing room, to come from where we were to where we are now," Perry said. "But we look at it this as another challenge, to keep pushing ourselves to get better every day."

Because, to be honest, that's how they've gotten to where they are right now.

 

Stars (35-19-6) vs. Blues (33-17-10)

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: American Airlines Center

TV/radio: FOX Sports Southwest PLUS; The Ticket 1310-AM, 96.7-FM

Don't miss your chance to see the Stars battle the Blues in a Central Division showdown on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at American Airlines Center. The first 10,000 fans receive a limited-edition Jamie Benn bobblehead. Get your tickets now!

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, and listen to his podcast.

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