Stars pushing toward the playoffs
Goaltending, scoring will make or break Stars on season-defining road trip
ST. LOUIS -- Welcome to life on the playoff precipice.
In the space of 24 hours, the Dallas Stars whipped the Nashville Predators at home, flew into St. Louis late in the evening and then bounced the NHL's top team (at the time) by a 4-2 count.
After, the music is blaring and players are joking as they pack their bags for the next stop on what is a season-defining five-game road trip that will now see them head east for dates in Washington, Carolina, Tampa and Florida.
As of Monday morning the Stars sat one point back of Phoenix, which occupies the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference, with a game in hand on the Coyotes. The two teams play in Arizona on the final night of the regular season.
"Real important. Especially the way we've on the road recently. We needed to get a win under the belt. That was a big two points for us," Stars head coach Lindy Ruff said.
"I thought the desperation in the game by both teams and the emotion in the game was just like a playoff game," Ruff said.
With a new GM, new coaching staff and a young, emerging team, the Stars are very much about the future. Still, they continue to battle history -- their own recent history that sees them just outside the playoff bubble with less than two weeks left in the regular season, and the kind of forgettable history that comes from missing the playoffs for five straight years.
Sitting in the press work room at Scottrade Center a couple of hours before arguably the team's biggest win of the season, rookie GM Jim Nill described trying to balance the need for immediate success against building something sustainable in a market hungry for its team to return to the glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Nill believes the Stars are ahead of the learning curve he imagined they might be on during his first season after coming over from Detroit in the off-season. He credits Ruff and Ruff's coaching staff for making it so.
"Our young guys have really grabbed it," Nill told ESPN.com.
He describes a kind of collegial atmosphere with the coaching/management group. They're all empty-nesters, he explained, so he and the coaching staff often end up sitting at the rink watching other games or simply talking about the game.
"Sometimes we'll be there until 1 a.m. watching hockey. We're just a bunch of hockey junkies," Nill said.
While Nill's job is to look big-picture, to think about the long term, the fact that the Stars have a chance to end the playoff misery endured by Stars fans isn't lost on him.
"I think it's huge," Nill said.
Fans in Dallas have been challenged by the team's failures these past five years, failures that have led to changes in ownership, at the GM position and behind the bench.
"They've got to have something to hang their hats on. You can't keep selling hope all the time," Nill said.
And is there a better way to assess just what kind of team you have than to watch them try to scrape their way into the postseason?
"These young kids need to go through it. We're in the playoffs right now," Nill said.
These kinds of situations are well known to netminder Kari Lehtonen, who was dealt from Atlanta to Dallas in 2010. The Stars have been close, but they haven't been able to crack the playoff nut in Lehtonen's time with the team.
"It's been tough the last three years. Sometimes we've been closer and sometimes further still it's a tough group to get into that top eight in the West. There was a lot of changes this year and I think we're getting better and moving in the right direction. I believe that we can get there and we can do some good things when we get there," Lehtonen told ESPN.com after he was particularly sharp in stopping 33 of 35 shots against the Blues.
He was less sharp the night before against Nashville, but Ruff wanted Lehtonen to go again in an effort to get the team to start the five-game trip on the right foot. The Stars acquired veteran Tim Thomas at the trade deadline, but Lehtonen is key to the Stars catching either Phoenix or Minnesota. Lehtonen, though, tries to downplay the idea that he is the focal point of the team's chances.
What gives the Stars some reason for optimism is that they have stopped having to rely simply on top scorers Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Against St. Louis, the Stars got two goals from Colton Sceviour and one apiece from Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel. The Stars now have six players with between 13 and 16 goals, and while they're not an offensive juggernaut they do have enough moving parts to win games when Benn (30 goals) and Seguin (32 goals) aren't producing.
More to the point, the Stars are getting that kind of key depth production at crucial moments in the season.
"I've told our team, I don't want to look at standings, I don't want to look ahead, I don't want to talk about what could be next. We're just going to stay in the present," Ruff said. "I've told them I'm not worried about mistakes. I'm not going to spend time on mistakes. I want to see if this group and these individual can push through under pressure.
"Because there is a lot of pressure. But I'm not going to deal with the mistakes. I told them we've got to make plays. Some of those plays there'll be some mistakes but you've got to be able to make plays."
As for Thomas, he'll also have a hand in whether the Stars end their playoff drought. He admitted he's had to readjust his thinking now that he's not "the man," as he was for so long in Boston and even earlier this season in Florida.
"Yeah, I've got to learn to relax a little bit. Because when you're always on, which is the way I've spent the majority of my career whether it was in the minors or college or pro, you're bearing down all the time," Thomas told ESPN.com.
"This is a little bit different situation. You have to be ready, focused enough to be ready, but at the same time it gives me an interesting viewpoint. I've had different times in my career where I wasn't playing a lot where I got to see stuff," the two-time Vezina Trophy winner explained.
"The one year was the year before we won the Cup when Tuukka [Rask] was playing a lot, and then there was the Olympics in 2010 that Ryan Miller was playing. Now being around the team from the bench but not being the one playing, it's an interesting perspective which I think helps when you get back into the game. The previous times I've had those experiences I've been able to use them moving forward," Thomas said.
Ruff admitted the past couple of starts Thomas made weren't that good -- eight goals allowed on 46 shots -- but Thomas will get into games down the stretch.
"We have to play a little bit different with where he plays the game. We don't have a lot of time to practice. But again, what I'm trying to say is that he's going to have to go in and play," the coach said.
Regardless of how this plays out, Thomas said he hopes to be back in the NHL next season. Whether it's with Dallas, which courted him a bit in the offseason before he joined the Florida Panthers, remains to be seen.
Like so many other things connected to the Stars, much will be revealed in the final days of this regular season.