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Stars in midst of incredibly close playoff race

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

For all practical purposes, the NHL playoffs have already arrived and the Dallas Stars are right in the thick of all the action.

That’s because each game is vitally important, as the Western Conference standings change nightly, with every contest bumping teams up and down the list, lifting some into a playoff spot and knocking others out of the top eight. 

The fact that five points separate eight clubs, ranging from the number four seed, occupied Thursday by Chicago with 81 points, to 11th place Nashville with 76, has made this season’s post-season chase the closest and most contested in memory. The sheer volume of teams involved, with virtually every game having an impact on the standings because they keep playing each other, is amazing. 

And that makes each point earned, and each one lost, of utmost importance as the battle continues.

Following their 4-3 shootout loss to Calgary Wednesday night, the Stars have 15 games left in the regular season and currently sit sixth with 80 points - four back of Pacific Division-leading third seed San Jose, and four points ahead of Nashville. And with 11 of their remaining contests are against one of those other clubs in the chase, it virtually guarantees that the Stars will face an intensity and desperation level usually only found in the post-season. 

“Get ready for the hardest hockey of the year,” winger Steve Ott said. “The last 20 are all playoff-type games and we have to be focused and be ready right from the get-go every night. All the teams are going to be ready to go and play extremely hard to get in the playoff race now, and for us, you have to continue to press and continue to push to get points.”

“We have some real big games and none of them are going to get easier, they’re all going to get harder from here on out,” added captain Brenden Morrow. “I think we realize that we’re in for a battle.”

For the Stars, the playoff-type atmosphere has already enveloped them, as each of their last six games, and seven of the last eight, have gone down to the wire, decided by one goal. Three have gone beyond regulation, and the resilient bunch has mounted successful third period comebacks to win three of them and gain a point in that Calgary game. That they have emerged from those last six outings with a 4-0-2 record bodes well for their chances down the stretch, because most of their remaining contests will likely require similar battles.

“You look at our schedule, the teams we play the rest of the way, every game is going to be like that,” said recently-acquired defenseman Alex Goligoski. “Every team is fighting for position right now, teams are fighting for playoffs spots, so it’s going to be a lot of one-goal games. I think we have to expect that. It’s nice to see that in games we’re behind, we can come back and just being able to play in tight games.”

The fact that Dallas has fashioned a stellar 21-5-8 mark in one-goal games this season, one of the best records in the league, is also a good sign as they hope to end a two-year playoff drought.

“That’s just the reality of the NHL right now, there’s no easy game,” defenseman Stephane Robidas said. “We’ve said it all along, there’s not one game in the season where you can say, ‘Hey, that’s a free night,’ where you don’t have to work. You got to earn the two points every night and right now with tight standings, it’s like playoffs. It’s just a matter of who’s doing the little things right and who wants it more. That’s the bottom line.”

Of course, with the team that loses in overtime or a shootout also earning a point in the standings, there have been many three-point games, and makes it harder for clubs to separate themselves from the pack. Last week, the Stars won three games in a row and wound up dropping from eighth to ninth over that span. That just further emphasizes how crucial each one is.

“We’re getting points and you can’t discount how important that is,” Stars coach Marc Crawford. “Whether you like the overtime rules or the shootout rules or not, the fact of the matter is points are up for grabs and they mean so much to the standings and I give our guys lots of credit - they’re digging in and battling hard and trying to find a way to get it done every night.”

One game into a season-long seven-game homestand, the importance to the Stars of taking advantage of those match-ups is heightened even more. They need to bank some points during this stretch, because once it’s over, they will play seven of their final nine games on the road. And although they’ve been strong on the road all year, especially after posting a 3-0-1 Pacific Division road trip last week, Dallas’ hopes probably hinge on their performance during the homestand.
“It’s big,” Robidas admitted. “Obviously, we’ve had success on the last road trip, but I think we’ve got to look one game at a time and not look too far ahead or not look at what happened in the past. We just got to focus on one game and go from there.”

That is one of the ways to stay dialed in each night during a long playoff run, or race to the post-season - not getting emotionally exhausted by becoming overly excited when things are going well, like they are now for Dallas, or too dispirited when they go poorly, like they did during a 1-8-1 slide in the 10 games following the All-Star break. 

“When you’re playing well, you try to ride streaks like that,” noted Goligoski, who helped Pittsburgh win the 2009 Stanley Cup. “You just take things as they come, and if we go out there and play the way we are, we’re going to be fine. You’re never as good as you are when you think you’re really good and you’re never as bad as you are when you’re not playing well. Just keep an even keel and don’t let your emotions get the best of you.” 

That the Stars haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2008 is certainly an additional motivating factor, both for the players who have endured two straight early summers and for a lot of the guys that have already experienced post-season success in the past. Beside there being five different players with Stanley Cup rings in the room, a bunch of players remain from the Dallas team that advanced to the 2008 Western Conference Finals.

“All of us want to put ourselves in the best position we can,” said Ott, who joined the club at the tail end of its turn-of-the-century glory days. “Not making the playoffs the last two years, yeah, damn right I want to be in the playoffs. For us, our focus is going to be to continue to push each other in here and continue to get those points and we want to have that playoff position - obviously, the best playoff position we can, but this team, from Day 1, wants to be a playoff team.”

“We have a lot of guys that have been there before, high-achieving performers,” Crawford pointed out. “We have a Conn Smythe winner in Brad Richards, Jamie Langenbrunner’s won a couple of Cups, Brenden Morrow, how good he’s been on playoff teams, even the run they had three years ago where they went to the Conference Finals - there’s still a lot of guys in our room now that were a big part of that performance, whether it was Toby Petersen, Loui Eriksson started to really show that he could play in the league then, and Robidas was definitely a top player at that time, so you have all those guys. And you also look at (Adam) Burish from last year, being in Chicago and being a part of such a tight-knit group there. I think for our younger guys, they can draw upon that experience of the guys who have been there.”

The stretch run is already upon us, and with the standings continuing to stay so bunched up, every game matters. For Dallas, it continues Friday night at home against Minnesota (7:30 pm start, FSSW), who currently sit ninth in the West with 77 points, so they’ll be just as desperate for points as the Stars are. 

“None of the games are going to be easy, they’re all going to be tooth and nail and you’re going to have to be ready to battle in each and every one of them,” Crawford said. “Each game individually poses a great challenge. I expect it to be a close, hard-fought battle and our guys have to prepare for a close, hard-fought battle. 

“And if you take care of business by winning games and taking care of points when they’re available to you, that’s the best way for us to get to be where this club hasn’t been in a couple of years, which is playing meaningful games in April. We’re all looking forward to it.”

Enjoy the ride!

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