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With a 'belief in each other,' Stars have matured - and it shows

Playoff hockey might be more about endurance than excitement, but Dallas is learning to come up with both

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Looking back on all of those ol' fantastic playoff memories, we might be romanticizing a little bit.

After all, watching the Stars and Predators play in a "playoff atmosphere" Thursday at Bridgestone Arena called to mind some of those double- and triple-overtime games, and quite frankly, it was a little hard to watch.

Oh sure, there was intensity, and strong defensive play, but the focus on that combination makes it really hard to put two or three passes together. That was the case in a 3-2 overtime win for the Predators.

As both teams tried to play good defense and follow the instructions of their respective coaching staffs in digging in and doing what it takes, the game became a bit of a scuffle.

Refs swallowed their whistles, and stick checking started to get more intense. Every player on the ice was aware of his defensive assignment, and passing lanes were filled with sticks and skates and bodies.

Video: Montgomery: 'We've become a tougher team mentally'

Both goalies performed well, but they also were aided by an electric forcefield that seemed to zap pucks out of midair. While there was chaos and bulling and drive to get the puck forward, it just seemed like a swamp of offensive futility at times.

For two periods Thursday, both teams hacked and whacked and gathered up the broken pieces of the puck (as Ralph Strangis used to like to say) and moved them forward 10 feet or 30 feet or 50 feet. It was a territorial game where the only goal scored was a crazy shot from Kevin Fiala that bounced off the back of Craig Smith while he was standing behind the goal and facing the other way. The puck went off Smith's back, up in the air, over the net, off the back of Anton Khudobin and trickled into the net.

That was the beauty and skill of this thing we call hockey? That was the ice ballet at its finest?

And yet when asked if he was frustrated by this flukiest of goals, Khudobin said no. The Predators worked for that chance. It shouldn't have gone in, but Nashville spent some good minutes in the offensive zone and was hammering the puck around the net, so it deserved a break.

And he was right about that, because that's how you win playoff games. You push and you do things right, and you hope the balance of details falls ever so slightly in your favor.

Video: DAL@NSH: Khudobin gets across to rob Fiala's chance

Asked if these games are like the playoffs, defenseman Roman Polak said yes.

"I think it is," Polak said. "You can feel it. You can feel the energy, and I like those types of games."

Of course he does, and it's one of the reasons he has gone from depth defenseman to top-four minutes. It's one of the reasons the coaching staff trusts him during these intense third periods.

The Stars are starting to embrace a defensive mindset, but they also are embracing a mindset of poise. They are playing a game that relies heavily on teamwork and details.

"I just like the way our team in third period … our belief in each other … we're coming out and believing we can win games," head coach Jim Montgomery said. "It's maturity. We've become a tougher team mentally, and it shows. Physically, we can impose our will and we've done that in this last little white."

Video: Khudobin's strong game not enough in Nashville

The Stars on Thursday came back and tied the game when Tyler Seguin created a nice shot on goal and Miro Heiskanen pumped in a rebound from distance. It was a combination of two skill players finding the opportunity to use their skill. After Nashville regained a 2-1 lead on a nice tic-tac-toe play, the Stars tied it again -- this time on a smart shot from Taylor Fedun through a screen.

Dallas was able to use its skill by first relying on its grit.

"To win in this league, you've got to play great defense, so on the other side of that, it makes it tough to generate offense," Fedun said. "But we just have to stick with it, and try to be relentless, get pucks in and work their D. Sometimes, it takes a bounce in order to get a good look on net, and you've got to just stick with it. You have to take care of the other side of the puck, so when those bounces do come our way, we can make the most of them."

Like Khudobiun said, the Predators earned their bounce ... just like the Stars earned bounces later in the game. That's part of the formula for winning in playoff games -- games that can be long and boring and not very pretty.

But as it happens even in those five-hour long playoff games, someone finds a way to win. And that's an important lesson as we try to find out what all this nonsense means down the stretch.

Video: DAL@NSH: Fedun buries a long shot through traffic

The Stars lost in 3-on-3 overtime, but gained a point in the standings. Their third-place spot seems more secure than ever, and a first-round playoff match with the Predators seems like a real possibility.

So, yes, there were lessons there.

But as much as we want to talk specifics, the real learning might be simply in the experience.

"It's maturity," Montgomery said. "We've become a tougher team mentally, and it shows."

A team that seems more comfortable in very uncomfortable situations.

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 and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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