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Stars looking to weave confidence, details into offense

With a daunting start to its schedule on the horizon, Dallas knows how important the next week will be

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

In the span of a few weeks, the Stars showed last season their potential for greatness and their potential for frustration.

While plowing through the Nashville Predators in a six-game series and getting a 3-2 lead on the St. Louis Blues, the Stars played with confidence, with speed and with possession.

Then, in Games 6 and 7 against the Blues, Dallas played on its heels and in its own zone, hoping that goalie Ben Bishop could save the day.

 

[MIKE HEIKA: It's only presason, but Stars must get serious about showing improvement]

 

He almost did, but the vision of St. Louis having a 54-30 advantage in shots on goal in Game 7 of the second-round playoff series burned for the Stars this summer. The memory of Dallas finishing 28th in scoring at 2.55 goals per game created plenty of motivation.

And while the preseason hasn't exactly resonated with energy and emotion to resolve those issues, the talk behind the scenes has been pretty intense about making changes that showcase the good things this team displayed last season.

"We're not going to lose our team identity, we are going to be hard to play against," Stars coach Jim Montgomery said. "But how do we become a more dynamic team, particularly in the offensive zone? We have to become better at maintaining possession in the offensive zone."

Montgomery was hoping that training camp and preseason were going to help create the base for improved play heading into the regular season. So far, that hasn't worked out, as the Stars have been vastly outshot and have scored just four goals in four preseason games.

That means, the corrections will be emphasized in the final three preseason games and in the ensuing practices days heading into the season opener against Boston Oct. 3.

"We're doing those things in practice right now, trying to really hammer home how we want to play, how we want to be relentless like we were at times last year," said forward Jason Dickinson. "We can say it all we want, but until we do that on the ice, it's not going to matter."

Video: Stars building line chemistry in final week of camp

Dickinson said when the team was playing its best in the playoffs, all of the lines and defense pairs were on the same page, and things were flowing seamlessly. That bred confidence and speed, and made the Stars a tough team to play against. To get back to that, he said the coaches are trying to get the details in line with the belief the confidence will follow.

"It's the little things that will make a difference," Dickinson said. "Things like making sure your stick is in a good spot on the forecheck to create the turnover to then eventually create the scoring chance. Everything is linked, and we all need to make sure that we're on the same page and playing together.

"I think our forecheck was in sync and on the same page last year. We didn't have any hesitation, and that allowed us to play very fast."

Montgomery said the key to playing fast is not so much fast skaters (although they do help), it's moving the puck directly and intelligently. He said the ability to get the puck out of the defensive zone quickly and get on the attack is paramount, and then the forwards need to go win puck battles to keep the puck in the offensive zone.

"When everyone talks about possession, they talk about the offensive zone and the forecheck. Well, if you break the puck out clean or your neutral zone transitions are quick and fast, it leads to speed on the puck which leads to a great forecheck," Montgomery said.

"So it's more that part of our game that I'm worried about. Because if you spend too much time in your own end, then when it's time to change you have one guy forehcecking and four guys changing, you can't have a forecheck in that situation."

New assistant coach John Stevens has been tasked with helping the team improve its offensive play. He and Montgomery are old friends, and he said they are on the same page in how they would like to improve.

"I do think it's important that the team can't change the fabric of how they play," Stevens said. "They're a really good defensive team, they've got really good goaltending, and you don't want to give that up. Instead, you just want to create more while you continue to play to your identity."

Dallas ranked second in goals against last season, so while they want to improve the scoring, the coaching staff very much is hesitant to go too wild. There simply have to be tweaks that build upon what was learned last season.

Video: Cogliano says Stars have room to grow

Stevens said he hopes he can help by being diligent with details in practice and in film sessions. By building a base of little things, the big things can eventually improve.

"I think I can be another set of eyes that can focus on that part of the game," he said. "I can be there to remind them of little things every day and hopefully the little things become habits."

Asked if a little old-fashioned "nagging" will be part of the process, Stevens said that's not how he sees it.

"It's not praise, it's not criticism, it's information," Stevens said. "It's like GPS on your dash, it's just telling you where to go."

But like the subtle mix of creating offense while maintaining defense, the coaching approach also has its nuances. Montgomery wasn't happy with the team's effort in a 6-0 preseason loss to Florida on Saturday and said so. So demanding can be an important part of the process.

"I think if you're getting chances and your effort is real good and you're grinding them down low, you wouldn't be concerned," he said. "But we haven't had enough of those situations occurring, so we're already concerned."

Players included.

Dallas starts the season with games against the two Stanley Cup finalists and plays seven of the first 10 on the road, so it needs to be ready to go when the season starts. That makes the next week or so pretty important.

"Right now, we're a little loose. That's understandable, it's preseason," Dickinson said. "But we're three games away from games really counting, so we do need to start looking more like the team we were in the playoffs last year."

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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