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Stars proving hungry for titles entering stretch drive

by Staff Writer / Dallas Stars

February 23, 2004

By J. Douglas Foster

Glenn James
Winning division titles, playoff series' and eventually, a Stanley Cup, is often down to one critical factor, one driving force that is greater in the successful teams than in those who take early vacations.

Sheer determination. In this league, it's often what separates the eventual champion from the top contenders.

Never this season has this Stars team seemed as determined, as hungry, as absolutely driven to do whatever it takes to win hockey games as it has in the last few games -- and with good reason.

It has to be there, they said. Right now, and no later.

"Our coaching staff has demanded it of us, and we've got to have that right now," Stars defenseman Don Sweeney said. "That's what it's going to take right now and nothing less. It's been put right in front of us.

"You might get away with less early on if your power play is going or your goaltender is playing out of his head, but not at this time of the year. You've got to be the more determined team every night."

Clearly, the coaching staff's message is out, judging by the last two Stars outings. After closing their three-game road trip with a victory in Los Angeles, the Stars have gone 2-0 in their two subsequent home games, outscoring Colorado and Anaheim by a combined total of 9-1.

In those two contests, the Stars have been noticeably hungrier than the opposition -- hungrier to get to loose pucks, hungrier to win one-on-one battles in the corner and behind both nets, hungrier to get to the front of the net to not only create rebounds, but to capitalize on them.

Hungrier, Stars coach Dave Tippett said, for more of the game than he saw during the first three games back from the All-Star break. He saw glimpses of it in Phoenix and Anaheim, but not a complete sellout effort from his squad.

He has the last three games for sure.

"There were a lot of little things we didn't do as well as we should have (in Anaheim and Phoenix)," Tippett said. "That's the urgency part, the determination to get the job done. It was there, but not to the levels we needed."

It was over the weekend, and two of the most notable areas of dominance were the Stars' defensive corps and the power line of Jason Arnott, Bill Guerin and Brenden Morrow.

That forward line combined for five goals -- three by Arnott, two by Morrow -- and 11 points during the last three games, using their strength and grit to generate chances deep in the opponents' end of the ice. They've been aggressive, persistent and physical during the stretch, which, combined with their talent, makes them almost un-checkable.

"It's more noticeable because the three of them are together and they're all playing big," Tippett said. "When they play that way, they are an awful tough line to play against because they can go out and impose their will on people.

"For the other team, that puts question marks in their heads."

Questions such as, "Who do we put against that line defensively?" Because if you do counter that line with your top defensemen, that leaves the current pairing of Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Rob DiMaio against a second unit of defensemen. All that trio has done in the last three games is combine for five goals and 10 points, giving definitive scoring balance when combined with the previously mentioned line.

Choosing which to match is certainly a catch-22.

And of course, the Stars' defensive group has been as strong in the two weekend home games as it has been at any point this season. During the two victories, they not only allowed just one goal but also surrendered just a combined 30 shots on goal -- 16 against Colorado and 14 against Anaheim.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

"Our six defensemen as a group right now have really found a groove," Tippett said.

But no matter what they've done the last week, the Stars said, there's certainly no room for complacency. There can't be, because despite their great play of late, they still entered the week four points back of San Jose for first in the Pacific Division.

If they want to keep climbing, they've got to stay hungry.

"We played well the last two games, but that doesn't matter," Stars defenseman Philippe Boucher said. "There are still a lot of good teams in front of us. We've got to keep pushing."

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*The Stars are 9-2-2-0 in their last 13 games, having outscored the opposition 20-7 during the third period of those 13 games. Marty Turco has allowed just five goals in the 12 third periods in which he has played during that stretch.

*The Stars have the league's second-best record this season when scoring first, registering a 22-3-3-0 mark in the 28 games in which they have done so. They are currently unbeaten in the last 20 games (17-0-3-0) when they score first

*When scoring at least two goals this season, the Stars have an NHL-best record of 28-4-7-0, registering 63 points in those 39 games. They are also 23-1-3-0 when scoring at least three goals.

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