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Stars' disciplined play without puck all about details

Instilled as a basic philosophy during training camp, the team's identity is paying off seven months later

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS -- The lessons of Boise have turned out to be pretty important to this team.

When the Stars opened training camp under new head coach Jim Montgomery in September, there were plenty of learning moments. The former University of Denver bench boss in his first few workouts with his NHL team focused on some pretty simple things like keeping your skates pointed in the right direction, taking direct paths on the forecheck to go through bodies and not around, and supporting your linemates with disciplined play.

It was a basic start, but it made sense to the players who were seeing their third head coach in three seasons.

 

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"I was sitting back on the bench and saying to a couple of guys, 'I think this could work," center Tyler Seguin said at the time. "It's new, it's fresh. If I saw this happening (as an opponent), I wouldn't really know how to operate around it."

Fast forward seven months, and Seguin is looking kind of prescient. The Stars have embraced their "identity" and have pushed their way into a second-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues that starts tonight at Enterprise Center (8:30 p.m. CT; NBCSN; WBAP 820-AM).

It hasn't been easy, and there have been plenty of twists and turns along the way, but at the heart of the Stars' success right now is a reliance on the basics that were taught in training camp.

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Much of what the team is doing comes from disciplined play without the puck. Dallas is solid and fast on the forecheck, relentless on the backcheck and detailed in its own zone. The result is the Stars ranked second in the NHL in goals against average during the regular season at 2.44, and then lowered that even further to 2.00 in the playoffs (also ranking second).

"It's a tough way to play, but the more we do it, the more successful we are," said forward Jason Dickinson. "There's a mindset that needs to be bought into by everybody, and it's working … everybody has bought in."

That has made Dallas a very difficult opponent. Nashville forward Austin Watson said after the Stars won Game 6 in overtime Monday: "They did such a good job of defending and tight-checking. They made it hard on us. Full credit to that group over there."

 

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So how do they do that? Well, by consistently doing the little things, and by trusting that your teammate is going to do the same thing.

"Now, it's seamless. Guys are on their toes and they know if they are closest to the puck, they've got to go," Montgomery said, laying out the tenets. "No. 1 is move your feet, No. 2 is have your stick in the middle of your body, and then angle. Take away time and space with your feet, your stick, and then your body. And then we have layers who will help out to try to get possession or create a 50-50 puck to help if that guy gets beat."

That's the book learning part of the plan. The execution is where it gets a little tougher.

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"It's hard work and pride -- and it's really hard to do in this league consistently," said forward Andrew Cogliano. "You have to have mental toughness, and you have to have that throughout your team."

Cogliano said when the entire team is on point, lines rotate smoothly and each line hands energy to the next. You don't always have to get a scoring chance or spend time in the offensive zone, but you have to do things right and make it hard on the opposition.

"The playoffs are all about momentum. You need four lines doing the right thing every shift and that's when you get rolling as a team," Cogliano said. "Guys have been really good about sticking to the game plan, I think that's been the key to the playoffs for us."

 

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And the playoffs have been a new level for this team. The Stars battled inconsistency the first half of the season and have been improving since the All-Star Break.

Now, they're typically playing "the right way" for most games.

"Details of your game are so important. It's been huge to trust in the process, because when you're not thinking, your habits take over," Seguin said. "Ever since training camp, we've believed in what we need to do and how we need to play. We've built our foundation of defending off of playing without the puck, and it's made us who we are."

 

Round 2, Game 1: Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues

Where: Enterprise Center, St. Louis
When: Tonight, 8:30 p.m. CT
TV: NBCSN
Radio: WBAP 820-AM

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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