After a promising 82-game regular season, the Dallas Stars prepare for the playoffs, confident that they can beat a strong opponent. Sound familiar?This is the scenario that has prevailed before each of the last two NHL post-seasons, but unfortunately for the Stars and their devoted fans, both ended prematurely in painful five-game first-round defeats to the Colorado Avalanche.
There are several reasons to believe the Stars' fate in 2006-07 will be different.
The first is that this year's Stars have had to battle right down to the wire to get in the playoffs and then to determine their positioning in the Western Conference. That they ended up as the sixth seed shows just how difficult a race it was, especially since they completed the regular season on a 12-2-2 roll.
Playing important, meaningful contests right to the end means that the club is focused and sharp heading into the playoffs, something that could not be said about the Stars last season.
Dallas was locked into the number two seed in the West for the last few weeks of 2005-06, and coasted down the stretch, compiling a 4-3-3 mark in Games 73-82 while allowing 31 goals. So when they faced a battle-tested opponent that had fought to the bitter end just to qualify for the playoffs, they were not able to match the intensity required to win. That simply isn't the case this season, as the club wasn't eliminated from contention for the Pacific Division title until Game 81.
"I don't think we're breezing into it," said captain Brenden Morrow, who enters the post-season with 11 points (six goals, five assists) in his last 11 games. "I think we're trying to elevate our game, we're not resting bodies, we're not taking it easy and hoping to turn the switch on. We were motivated, we were playing for something, instead of just trying to save ourselves and turning on the switch when the playoffs came."
"It's a totally different atmosphere," added defenseman Stephane Robidas. "Last year, we went into the playoffs a little backwards, because we didn't play hard the last little bit last year. We were assured of the playoffs and we kind of floated a little bit and I think it showed in the first game in the playoffs, we lost against Colorado. It was a little bit of a wakeup call, and I think it was too late. We realized that it's not an on-and-off switch, and I think it's good that we're battling, and that we've played important games the last month. I think we're going with a lot of confidence into the playoffs and we're going to keep building on what we've done the last couple of months."
Another difference is that the Stars have excelled in tight games this season, and practically every post-season game fits into that category. With their 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Chicago Sunday afternoon, Dallas finished the season 28-15 in one-goal games, which is definitely a good sign, including 6-2 in contests decided in overtime. Last year, the Stars were 3-5 in regular season OT, and ended up dropping three overtime games against Colorado in the playoffs. In a series featuring two of the NHL's three best defensive teams (Dallas was second with 197 goals allowed, including 22 over the last 10 games, while Vancouver finished fifth with 201), you can bet that virtually every game will be low-scoring and tight. That the Stars won a lot of those battles will help.
"Playing those close games and how you play in overtime or late in games, they're certainly factors that become ingrained in your team," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "Hopefully that bodes well because our guys have done a good job in those games. You learn lessons all the time, but those lessons of finding ways to win are strong lessons to have because they're positive reinforcement. I think it just builds the character of your team."
The fact that the Stars have made several third period comebacks recently (winning a total of 10 games this season when trailing entering the final period), including two in mid-March in which they recovered from three-goal deficits in the third to win, also means they can never be counted out and that the club feels they can rebound from any hole they might dig for themselves.
"We're playing with confidence right now," said defenseman Philippe Boucher, who twice scored goals in the final 30 seconds to tie games that the Stars eventually won in shootouts. "We have to carry that into the playoffs and playing so many close games, even at the end of the year, that's how we won all the games, coming back in the third, or protecting a lead or doing it in shootouts. We won't be able to (win in a shootout) in the playoffs, but taking a lot of games down to the wire is going to help us."
"Down the stretch here, the identity of our team all year has been a team that defends well, and we've been getting the timely goals lately, so hopefully that'll carry over," said Morrow. "We're pretty confident if we have the lead, we're going to hold onto it, and if we're down a couple goals, lately we know we can come back from that."
Another key factor for Dallas is that the last couple of seasons, they breezed through the regular seasons without facing too many problems along the way. Last year, their entire lineup remained intact almost the whole season, as they missed just 94 man-games due to injury, third-fewest in the league. In 2003-04, they lost 190, which was sixth-fewest.
This season, they have endured lengthy stretches without several key performers, including Mike Modano for 23 games and Morrow for 33. On a nightly basis, the club has been missing five or more regulars because of injury, and ended the season with 295 man-games lost, third-most in the league.
What that has done, however, is allowed other players to play more prominent roles during the season and given the Stars the chance to integrate solid depth players into the system, so that now, if injuries hit during the playoffs, they have reinforcements ready who are up to speed in ability and focus. "Some of the adversity that our team has gone through, we've had to scratch and claw to get to where we are," Tippett said. "Sometimes these injuries force you into situations where you need to try things and when you do get everybody back, it might have worked, or it might have not worked, but you have that option."
"I think we faced so much of adversity all year, injuries, all kinds of different things," added Boucher, who enjoyed an outstanding season, reaching career highs in goals (19), assists (32) and points (51), despite the lengthy illness and recent passing of his father Jean-Claude. "If you look back, three years ago when we lost to Anaheim, there was a pattern where everything came pretty easy that year, and then we couldn't pull it off in the post-season. This year, everything has come pretty hard, we've done it the hard way. This is what the playoffs are all about, so I think we can take a lot of our season and carry it into to the playoffs."
The Stars have also displayed more grit this season, becoming a harder team to play against with agitators like Steve Ott, rookie Krys Barch, hard-hitting Joel Lundqvist and Matthew Barnaby (who missed the season's last 38 games with the after-effects of a concussion) all contributing, not to mention scrappers Stephane Robidas and Morrow, too. Plus, the additions of defensive stalwarts Jeff Halpern and Mattias Norstrom has also helped in that area.
That grit and never-say-die character was something that seemed to be insufficient last year.
"When you get into tough series, that's when the real character in people comes out and you find out a lot about how deep people will go to be successful," Tippett said. "I think character is huge," Morrow noted. "If you're up in the series and you have to close it out or if you're down in the series and you've got to come back, then you've got to have that from within, and the personnel changes that they've made to bring in those character, gritty players, I think they're going to pay off in the end."
The final contrast from the past post-season disappointments is that many Stars players, as well as the coaching staff, went through those painful defeats and have learned valuable lessons from them.
"We can't live in the past, what's done is done, but we can learn from it," Robidas said. "There's a lot of guys back from last year and we don't want the same thing to happen again this year. It was definitely a learning experience, what happened last year, and sometimes you learn from bad experience."
"I just feel good, that's about it," said goaltender Marty Turco, who shoulders much of the pressure to avoid the same playoff result, when asked why this season feels different. Even though the numbers don't show a dramatic difference from last season, Turco indicated that he feels fresher heading into the post-season, and that is significant. Last year, he played 19 of the final 23 regular season games, while this season he suited up 16 times over the Stars' last 23, with backup Mike Smith playing the other contests.
"On the ice, I feel great," Turco noted. "We've really been working hard in practice, I've taken some time off. I haven't played all the games, Smitty has played quite a bit here in the last month. Right now, I'm in a great place and I'm really looking forward to the challenge, because it's going to be a big one for us and for me to give these guys a chance to win every night."
His teammates are squarely behind him and the team is ready for the puck to drop Wednesday night at GM Place.
"Marty's been very, very solid, we have tons of confidence in him," Boucher said.
"I think we're mentally ready," Robidas said. "The last several games, we've been focusing on how we want to play in the playoffs, and I think we've played well. We're going into the playoffs on two big wins and we just want to keep playing simple and try to win that first game in Vancouver."