DALLAS –- Sometimes stepping away from the ice can help bring about a different perspective.
Stars captain Brenden Morrow experienced that as he missed the last four games with an oblique muscle strain. He was back in the lineup in Wednesday's 4-3 shootout win over Calgary at American Airlines Center. But while Morrow was injured, two things stuck out as he watched his club from high atop the arena or on television: The Stars are, in his words, a "pretty fragile team," and they must improve their defense to have any chance of making a playoff push.
The good news: Dallas managed to overcome adversity Wednesday and played solid defense in a win. And, of course, it was at home. Dallas is an amazing 12-2-2 in the last 16 games at AAC.
"That was huge," said Morrow, whose team beat a team right in front of them in the battle to make the playoffs in the tightly contested Western Conference standings. "I'm not sure when the momentum swung back in our favor, but we didn't shy away from it. We kept finishing our checks, playing physical, didn't have hesitation in our game. Usually when a bad thing happens in the past, and I know it's just one night, there's a little bit of hesitation and backing up in our game. That didn't happen this time."
The adversity on Wednesday was a match penalty to Mark Fistric for striking another player with his helmet in a fight. The intent to injure penalty meant Fistric was ejected, forcing the Stars to kill off three minutes of power-play time (no matter how many goals were scored, like a major penalty) and to adjust to playing without Fistric for the rest of the game. Down 3-1, the Stars battled back with a goal late in the second and the tying one midway through the third. Then they won in the shootout.
But that hesitation Morrow is referring to has been an issue for much of the season. Morrow said at Wednesday's morning skate that when things don't go the Stars' way, the team goes "downhill pretty quick."
"A lot of it is a confidence thing," Morrow said. "It's not a trust thing. But when one bad thing happens, you try and do a little too much, and you start running around and you're out of position and more holes happen."
The best way to gain the confidence and keep from letting the mistakes become a crushing blow is to shore up things on the defensive end.
"I think we've talked about it, but now this is a real focus for us," Morrow said. "It has been the last two days in practice. We've watched a lot of video about the defensive zone and not just where to be, but if something happens, where do we go? You have to make sure you take care of your job."
The Stars did a much better job of that Wednesday. They held the Flames to 26 shots, but just three in the third period, with the game on the line. The Stars, who turned over too many pucks in the second period, were much more disciplined in the third. And it sure seemed like they controlled the puck for much of the final frame, which is how Stars coach Marc Crawford's system is supposed to work.
Dallas is trying to skate that fine line of staying aggressive on offense with an up-tempo style, but also making sure to stop rushes by the opponent. The idea is for the defensemen to join the rush when they can to put additional pressure on the opponent. But it means that forwards have to help out and get back quickly for support in the defensive zone.
Dallas is trying to execute its puck-possession, high-energy, offensive style against many NHL teams that circle the neutral zone like vultures, waiting to pounce on a mistake and turn it into a scoring opportunity. And the Stars have made some of those mistakes to create chances for the opponent.
"We've always, all along, contended that we build our offense through great defense," Crawford said. "It's the logic of having the puck as opposed to not having it. If you don't have the puck, you have to know collectively how to get it back. It takes teamwork to do that defensively as opposed to more individual talent that can take over offensively. On defense, you are dependent on those behind you. We have to make sure when the puck is separated from us, we know what to do."
When the Stars play defense to the tune of holding the opponent to three or fewer goals, they are a staggering 22-5-4. Interesting enough, despite the new aggressive system, the Stars had scored 12 fewer goals before Wednesday's game than they had in the same number of games last season. That makes taking care of things in the defensive zone even more critical.
Don't expect Crawford to do his best imitation of defensive stalwart Ken Hitchcock, who once said that his team might get just one good scoring chance in 10 rushes, but that the opponent wouldn't get any. That's not the plan for these Stars. But they are trying to reconnect with their defensive roots.
"We've always been a great defensive team," Steve Ott said. "It's our foundation, and if you see that slip you have to do something. If we tighten up the defensive side first, you'll get more offensive chances. Don't ask me why, but it works that way."
A huge part of that defense is the goaltender. Like the rest of the team, it's been up and down. The Stars seem content to ride the hot hand in net at this point. Alex Auld got the start Wednesday. Marty Turco was in goal the previous two games.
But Auld may be starting to push his way into more of a lead role down the stretch. He was solid on Wednesday, keeping his team in the game in a tough second period and then stopping two good shots in overtime and all three shootout skaters.
"I felt good in the shootout," Auld said. "I obviously have a little bit of confidence in that right now. That's a key part of feeling good, feeling confident enough to hold your ground and wait for the move you think is the one."
Holding ground is what the Stars are doing right now, thanks to the magic of home ice. But if they want to work their way up the standings and into a playoff spot, they have to take the momentum gained from a game like Wednesday's and turn it into a winning streak.
"We have to keep doing the same things," Morrow said. "We have to keep it simple and keep our focus on limiting opportunities for the other team's scoring chances. With the talent we have in here, the skill is going to take over. It's been the case for years here that we are an opportunistic team when there are mistakes and recover hard and play well defensively. With the lineup we have right now, that's something we have to focus on, and we did a better job of it. Now we have to keep doing it."
They get that chance on Friday against Colorado.