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Remainder of month could hold playoff key

by Bob Matuszak / Dallas Stars

The saying goes that you can’t win a playoff berth in the early months of the season, but you can certainly lose it. For the Stars, a lightning-quick start helped set themselves up for a February that could go a long way in determining their hopes of snapping a three-year playoff drought.

After a light January due mostly to the All-Star break, the Stars will wind up playing 16 games in the second month of the calendar year, the most of any month in the season. But despite that daunting number, the contests are plenty diversified, giving the Stars a good chance of coming out ahead when March 1 arrives.

“Our schedule isn’t terrible,” coach Glen Gulutzan said. “We’ve got a balanced schedule, and a good home schedule. This month is a heavy month, but if we manage our rest and take it day by day I think that we can get out of here and stay in good position. That’s the key -- I’ve been involved in other races in the American Hockey League where it’s tight and everybody is waiting for something to break, and it never does. It goes right to the wire. So the teams that can commit to just playing day by day and keep focus on the task at hand, those are the teams that will ultimately emerge.”

Of the 16 games, eight are on the road -- where the Stars have compiled a 13-13-1 mark after their shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night -- and the other eight at home at American Airlines Center, where Dallas boasts a 15-11-2 mark following Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

The Stars will also have a mixed bag of playing against teams that are ahead of them in the standings (at Detroit on Tuesday and at Chicago on Feb. 23), teams they are competing directly against for the final playoff positions (home vs. both Calgary and Minnesota), and two games against Eastern Conference foes Montreal and Pittsburgh.

“I like the fact that we’re playing teams we are going directly against because you have your fate in your own hands,” Gulutzan said. “You have to win those games in order to have success. So as long as you have those types of games, you still have your fate in your own hands.”

The Stars also may have an edge on the Red Wings and Blackhawks matchups, as well as the encounter with the Vancouver Canucks at home at the end of the month. Those trio of teams have pretty much sewn up a playoff slot despite Chicago’s recent slide, and rather than top clubs hitting a lull in March or even April, February proves to be a good month for them to excusably take a small step back in anticipation of making big strides in the playoffs.

“I know in the last few weeks of the season if you’re playing a team that might be maybe six points or so separated from everyone else, and they’re a lock to get into the playoffs, sometimes those teams can be a target where you can pick up two points,” Gulutzan said. “However, I don’t put too much stock into that. There are just too many teams that are going too good.”

At this juncture of the season, it’s difficult to leapfrog teams and create separation unless a club goes on an incredible winning streak. For the Stars, beating, or at least garnering a point via shootout or overtime loss against the Flames, Wild, and at the Phoenix Coyotes on Feb. 18 will be critical in helping secure a spot in the postseason tournament. But there are two games that could significantly help Dallas’ chances, and they deserve to be watched with a keen eye.

The Stars will play at the Canadiens on February 21, and then host the Penguins on the final day of the month. Even if the Stars lose in overtime or a shootout, they come out ahead because those teams are in the East, and just like the shootout loss in Buffalo, the shared point doesn’t inflict too much pain.

“Every month is important, but coming out of the All-Star break there are a lot of games in a short amount of time, so it’s a big time for us and we need to make a push,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “It’s important for us to show up every night. Hopefully we can get out of this month on the winning side, and get the most points that we can have to look forward to March.”

But until March arrives, the Stars have an ideal opportunity to set themselves up for a strong surge that can catapult them into playing past mid-April.

“There are just too many teams that are too good, and I think everyone will be coming down to the last week,” Gulutzan said. “It might come down to the last five or six games of the year and I think the teams that are positioned the best with their schedule at that time are probably going to come out of it. We’re going to be in a battle right to the end, so we have to go day by day and game by game because that’s all you can really do. It’s going to be tight.”

Tight, but fun to watch.

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