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Stars looking forward to tough stretch run

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

After a nice five-day All-Star break, the Dallas Stars have started the stretch run of the 2010-11 NHL season and with 31 games left to play, have put themselves in pretty good position for the race to the finish.

Despite falling 4-1 to the Western Conference-leading Vancouver Canucks in their first game back Tuesday night, the Stars still boast an 8-3-1 mark since the calendar turned to 2011 and have one of the NHL’s top five records since mid-November. Sitting atop the Pacific Division at 30-16-5, the Stars find themselves in the enviable position of having built up a bit of a cushion in their quest to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

But while they’re happy with what they’ve been able to accomplish so far, the Stars recognize that the job is far from complete and there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played.

“We’re happy with where we’re at, but we can’t get complacent,” said captain Brenden Morrow, who leads the squad with 21 goals through 51 games. “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. I think we realize that we’re for a battle and I think we prepared ourselves in a real good way to set ourselves the best we could.”

“We’ve set ourselves up with our play through the first 50 games of the season, but none of that matters,” added coach Marc Crawford. “You’ve almost got to look at it as, you’re starting anew and we got off to a great start in the regular season where we won our first four games and I think we’ve got to look to get off to a great start again.”

Even though that didn’t happen in their first game back against the NHL’s top team, which has had their number all year, the Stars remain confident as they head out for a tough two-game road trip against two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, stopping in Boston Thursday and in Philadelphia Saturday.

Crawford pointed out how the club wants to stick to its usual approach to just take it one game at a time.

“It’s a very tough week, we’re playing all top teams in the league, but we’re a top team, too,” Crawford said. “So we’ve got to take care of our own game and make sure that we present ourselves in a fashion where we can get whatever point is available. I don’t think we worried about that at all at the start of the season. You’re just looking to, ‘be good tonight, be good tonight.’ And maybe that’s got to be our mantra here, ‘Let’s be good tonight.’”

“Those are very good teams, but we can’t let that affect us,” defenseman Stephane Robidas said of the upcoming opponents. “We got to respect them, we’ve got to be ready to go, but we have to play our game, our type of hockey. I think that’s when we’re successful.”

After the Stars, other than All-Star Game participants Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson, had several days to enjoy some rest, both physically and mentally, the squad feels recharged as they gear up for the stretch run.

“It’s good to get away and get your mind off hockey for a couple of days,” noted agitator Steve Ott, “kind of re-energize and re-focus yourself and get ready for the hardest hockey of the year. The last 30 are all playoff-type games and that extra energy is going to be pretty solid. We have to be focused and be ready right from the get-go. All the teams are going to be ready to play extremely hard to get in the playoff race now, and for us, it’s great we put ourselves in a great position and put ourselves up some points on the eighth spot, but you have to continue to press and push to get points.”

“You still have to win a lot of games, but of course, we’re in a spot where we were hoping to be and that’s a pretty good feeling,” added goaltender Kari Lehtonen, whose outstanding play has been a key reason the Stars are sitting third in the West right now. “But you can’t slow down now. Every team is going to start playing better and better, so we have to, too.”

With a large clump of teams directly behind them in the West standings, where fourth-place Nashville and 12th-place Calgary are separated by just five points, it’s no surprise that the Stars, who are four points up on the Predators, have been actively scoreboard-watching for quite awhile already.

“It pretty much started in November,” Morrow admitted. “Never can I remember doing it that early. It’s always watching to see if the Eastern teams are taking care of the Western teams when they play. You’re always checking on it.”

As they look over their shoulders at their pursuers, both Stars players and coaches indicate that improved team chemistry is one of the most important factors in the club’s resurgence this season, despite having much of the same cast that missed the playoffs in 2009 and 2010.

“I think it starts with a lot of camaraderie, the way we’re playing together and having fun with each other,” said Ott, who has stepped up as an important team leader this season. “And obviously, we’ve followed the system and been dedicated to it a lot better this year. It’s no surprise how good been Kari’s been and (backup Andrew Raycroft) has been, as well. When your goalies have been winning as consistently as they have been, it obviously gives everybody confidence. It gives your young D-men some confidence, it gives your forwards more confidence to score, and that’s probably in the long run, making us a full, better team.”

“I do think chemistry is very important,” added Crawford, who played 176 NHL games with Vancouver from 1981-87 and has been coaching in the world’s top league since 1994-95. “The good teams that I’ve been a part of, both as a player and as a coach, the good teams seem to have that figured out, the chemistry mix. I think a lot of it comes from the winning - it’s more fun to win than to always come up short. There’s no doubt that it’s due to the characters within the room. I think the fact that they like each other and they want to play for each other, and the bigger fact that they want to push themselves to find a way to get the win. That’s so hard to find, because most of the stuff that we’re doing, most of the other teams are doing it, too.”

Crawford also pointed to Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk’s Jan. 7 trade with New Jersey, which added veteran Jamie Langenbrunner (and his $2.8 million salary) to their strong group of forwards, as another watershed mark for the season, in terms of what it means to a club still dealing with an uncertain ownership situation.

“I think the acquisition that we made of Jamie Langenbrunner, I think spoke volumes of what Joe thinks of this team,” Crawford said. “We’re not by any stretch of the imagination a wealthy team and to find the extra dollars to do it was probably harder than many other clubs to do it, some of these top teams that are big-market clubs will have more of an opportunity to add a piece financially, although everybody’s got challenges with personnel and depth and the cap.” 

The onus is now on the Stars to keep up the good work and build on what they’ve been able to achieve so far. If they continue to battle for each other and play up to their considerable capabilities, they should be able to end their post-season drought and even do some damage once they get there. But there’s still a lot of work left before any of those dreams become a reality.

“The second half, it’s going to be a sprint to the finish and we want to take care of business,” Crawford said. “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.”
“All of us want to put ourselves in the best position we can,” said Ott. “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. This is kind of crunch time, so we have to come focused and strong.”

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