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Stars Focused on Next Challenge

by Ken Sins / Dallas Stars

Stars coaches won’t need to toil long into the night poring over scouting reports for their Western Conference semifinal series against the Sharks that gets underway Friday night in San Jose.

As Pacific Division rivals, these teams know each other very well, meeting eight times during the regular season. In this case, familiarity certainly breeds contempt.

The most recent installment was an overheated affair on the final day of the regular season, an evening approaching playoff intensity that was marked by 160 penalty minutes (95 for the Sharks) and several fistic exchanges.

Dallas captured a 4-2 decision on April 6 to earn a split of the season series and close out the schedule with an encouraging 3-1-2 spurt that ended a slump and carried the Stars into the playoffs.

“It was quite meaningless, but we were just glad they played like that, on the edge, it helped us stay captivated in the game,’’ Stars goaltender Marty Turco said. “It helped stir some interest in the guys.’’

As far as the Stars are concerned, that was the end of the chippy activity. Parading to the penalty box in the playoffs is a recipe for an early exit.

“Their (lack of) discipline was pretty uncharacteristic of what you’re going to see in the playoffs,’’ Stars agitator Steve Ott said. “They’re obviously not going to be jumping guys and carrying on in the playoffs. They’re an extremely disciplined team and we have to match that.’’

Not to say that this series will be a lovefest. Far from it. The Sharks are a big, tough, physical bunch, just as the Anaheim Ducks were in the first round.

But the Stars didn’t back down to the Ducks, who were guilty of some self-indulgent penalties. Dallas cashed in, and if San Jose wants to play the same way, the Stars’ power play is poised to make the Sharks pay after registering 10 man-advantage goals against Anaheim.

“The way we played against Anaheim is the way we need to play against that bully-type team. We pushed back. But we’ll be a disciplined team. We don’t want to take penalties against that team, with (Joe) Thornton, (Patrick) Marleau, (Jonathan) Cheechoo and all the firepower they have on their power play,’’ Stars captain Brenden Morrow said.

Best news for the Stars: elite defenseman Sergei Zubov is getting close to being a game-night contributor. Zubov, sidelined since Jan. 17 with a sports hernia, practiced with the team again on Tuesday morning. While he wasn’t extending himself, he’s skating better and is expected to be in the lineup at some point in this series.

  “I felt great out there,’’ Zubov said. “I feel a lot better. I'm getting there. Nobody knows when. When I feel I can be effective, I'll be in there. I'm almost there. I hope I can put this behind me, get back on the ice and help our team to go forward.''

When he does come back, Zubov probably won’t be a 30-minute-per-game contributor like he was before he was hurt. But, as Stars center Mike Modano said, “Him at 60 (percent) is better than half the league at 100 (percent).’’

“We all know he’s not only our best defenseman, he could be the best player on our team, especially with the minutes he logs,’’ Stars defenseman Mattias Norstrom said. “Missing a player of Zubie’s caliber, it’s going to be a tremendous help to get him back. He’s an impact player, a player who can change a game on his own. We’re so happy to see him skating.’’

There’s a smile on Zubov’s face again after two surgeries and long months of watching his teammates.

“It gets frustrating when it goes this long,’’ Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “But he can see there’s light at the end of the tunnel so his spirits are getting better and better.’’ 

Dallas’ other All-Star blueliner, Philippe Boucher, isn’t as close to returning as Zubov. Boucher still isn’t skating because of a strained hip and there’s no timetable for him to get back on the ice for practice.

In the absence of Zubov and Boucher, the rest of the defense has stepped up. Stephane Robidas absorbed many of Zubov’s minutes and played superbly. Norstrom, Trevor Daley and rookies Nicklas Grossman, Matt Niskanen and Mark Fistric also performed admirably under pressure in the Anaheim series.

“They were amazing,’’ Zubov said. “They took care of the series. They had big pressure but made great plays and helped us into the second round.’’ 

The Stars don’t fear the Sharks, but they respect them. San Jose closed out the season with an incredible 18-2-2 push to zip past Dallas in the standings and annex the Pacific Division title.

“They’re probably not as skilled as Anaheim, but they’ve got some quality guys who can play all aspects of the game,’’ Modano said. “It’s going to be tight checking. Both teams don’t allow very much on the rush.’’

Winning a first-round series for the first time since 2003 was a relief for the Stars, but they’re not content.

“If anything it will push us forward,’’ Tippett said. “The first round is a tough round to get out of. Your players take a breath, and now they really get down to work. That first round is a big hurdle. It will bring the best out of our guys.’’

In some respects, the Stars are better off opening on the road. They began their first-round series with a pair of wins in Anaheim, and that propelled the Stars into the next round with a four games to two series victory.

But Dallas closed out the Anaheim series with consecutive home victories, showing signs of ending that so-called “American Airlines Center Jinx’’ that had seen the Stars drop six of their previous seven playoff games at the AAC.

On Friday night, the Stars anticipate the same raucous crowd they always encounter at HP Pavlion.

“They’re passionate, intelligent, loud fans,’’ Turco said. “They disliked me in the regular season, and I haven’t played there in the playoffs yet. I’ll be the guy who’ll be chumming the waters out there, stirring up some interest. We know what it’s like in the regular season so we’ve got a pretty grand idea how it’ll be in the post-season.’’

Once again, the Stars are underdogs, but they seem to thrive in those circumstances.

“We’re playing our best hockey at the right time of year,’’ Morrow said. “We’ll see how far this momentum we’ve built can take us. We’re going to have to play with the same desperation we did against Anaheim, and then raise it up a little bit more."

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