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Stars Zero in on Ducks

by Ken Sins / Dallas Stars

The Stars are underdogs in their first-round Western Conference playoff series that opens Thursday night against the Anaheim Ducks.

  That’s to be expected. Anaheim holds the home-ice edge, and the Ducks are, after all, the defending Stanley Cup champs. They’ve earned their role as favorites in the series.

But an upset by the Stars would be no shocker, either. Dallas outplayed Anaheim in their regular-season series, and the Stars hope to continue that trend in their best-of-seven set against the Quackers.

The Stars have plenty of incentive to play well. They’ve been first-round knockout victims in their last three trips to the playoffs, and a fourth-straight one-round-and-done would be another blow to their pride.

Stars captain Brenden Morrow points to penalty-killing and the power play as two huge keys to the playoffs. Another major factor is their ability to play a strong third period, a trait that had been lacking at times in the regular season, especially during a late-season slump that cost them first place in the Pacific Division.

Dallas was no slouch in either special-teams category. The Stars were second in the league on the penalty kill (85.5 percent, a mere .3 behind NHL-leading San Jose). And while their power play finished 20th in the league, the Stars were fourth on the road with the man-advantage (20 percent).

Anaheim led the league in penalty minutes for the second straight season with 1,481, so the power-play chances should be there for Dallas.

“We’ve got to keep our special teams rolling and play to our strengths,’’ Morrow said. “We can’t crack in third periods, something we’ve struggled with late in the season. But we’ve got some confidence now and it’s time to gear it up for the playoffs.’’

Center Mike Modano still has fond memories of those fabulous Stars playoff runs of the past, capped by the 1999 Stanley Cup.

“It’s been a while, but that taste still lingers, what we’ve done before and how exciting it was for us players and fans and the city,’’ Modano said. “We’ll do our best and see if we can get another chance to do it again. We need to get our minds and bodies right and see if we can redeem ourselves for the last couple years.’’

Some of the keys to the series:

Dallas held a 5-3-1 regular-season edge over the Ducks, converting on 23.7 percent of their power-play chances. But the Stars can’t hang their hats on those numbers.

For one thing, two of those victories came before Ducks stalwarts Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne “unretired.’’ Since Selanne’s return to the lineup, he has notched 12 goals and 11 assists to help his team to a 20-5-1 record.

“They’re a lot different team than we saw the first half of the season with Niedermayer and Selanne back and the confidence they have now,’’ Morrow said. “It’s going to be a tough series. If that (regular-season success vs. Anaheim) helps guys relax and feel more comfortable looking back, sure, but it’s a zero-zero start now.’’

Said Modano: “When we played them early in the season, there was probably a little hangover from the Stanley Cup, which I had for a couple of years. It’s tough to get motivated because they’d just gone through two months of playoffs. The last thing they wanted to do in October and November was to be tested the way they did a few months ago. But as the season has gone by, they got that hunger back.’’

The Ducks are a physical team and the Stars must hold their own in that regard. But Dallas must avoid the temptation to retaliate, waiting for Anaheim to take the penalties and put the Stars on the power play.

“It’s the time of the year when you take the hit, take the extra shot, take the punch to make the play,’’ Modano said. “Try to control yourself with discipline and control your emotions on the ice. That takes everybody, ease everybody’s tension and direct that energy in a positive area.’’

Said Morrow: “You have to push back a little bit but we don’t want to cross that line. “We’d like them to bully us a little bit and take advantage of them with the power play if they cross the line. But we need to play physical, we need to finish our checks.’’

Stars agitator Steve Ott promised to keep those emotions in check.

“You’ve got to start with discipline,’’ Ott said. “They’re going to be very revved-up games, very intense. That’s always a key in the playoffs. A guy takes a bad penalty late in the game, that can end up costing you. You can’t cross the line. Playoffs, they seem to let things slide a little more, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do a little more.’’

Little things become much larger in the playoffs.

"The intensity and urgency is there to get little things done that maybe get overlooked in the regular season, the little plays, the blocked shots, the missed shots, things that normally you don’t notice really show up in the playoffs,’’ Modano said. “If we do those little things continuously well, we’ll be OK.’’

Win at least one of the first two games in Anaheim.

“Your first objective is to always try to get a split and set the tone from Game 1 and see if you can back them up and play them hard,’’ Modano said. “But obviously they know what it takes to win, they’ve got guys that have done it in the past, some great leadership plus guys they’ve added who are anxious to get their first Cup.’’

A repeat of last year’s standout performance by goaltender Marty Turco in the first-round defeat to Vancouver would give the Stars a tremendous lift.

“Marty took steps forward last year and we look forward to him continuing that this year,’’ coach Dave Tippett said.

In that seven-game series against the Canucks, Turco had a 1.30 goals-against and a .952 save percentage, the best playoff run of his career.

“My confidence is high and my game is where I want it to be right now,’’ Turco said. “There’s nothing like experience. We’re hungry as ever. Last year’s experience will help.’’

On the other end of the rink, the Ducks lean on goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who led Anaheim to the Cup last season with a 1.97 goals-against and .922 save percentage. Giguere is one of the top money goaltenders in the league, having won nine playoff series and having played in two Cup finals, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003.

Dallas’ young defensemen must step up.

With Sergei Zubov expected to be out for the series as he recovers from a hernia procedure, and with Philippe Boucher and Mattias Norstrom missing time during the season, kids Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric (all 23 or younger) have been force-fed into the lineup.

The trio has been mostly up to the task, although some opponents have been able to generate turnovers by forcing them to make quick decisions.

“We don’t have to tell them too much,’’ Turco said. “They’re pretty heady. They got a lot of experience this year. They’re geared up. They know.’’

Centers Mike Ribeiro and Brad Richards and right wing Jere Lehtinen will all be back in the lineup after missing time last week due to cases of the flu. So, with the exception of Zubov, the Stars will be throwing their best group against the Ducks.

And so, crunch time has arrived for the Stars.

“There were portions of the season where we played well together and everybody worked hard as a group,’’ Tippett said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do. We have to recognize Anaheim as the defending champions. We’re going to need all hands on deck if we’re going to have a chance to win this series. We’re going to have to compete awful hard.’’

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