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Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Updated: January 27, 1:27 PM ET
Stars doing just fine flying under the radar

By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com

Let them twang the praises of the surprise package from Music City. Or drone on about the Red Wings' still-fearsome firepower. Or analyze the Vancouver-Calgary-Edmonton-Colorado power bloc, relentlessly hammering away at each other in the Northwest Division.

They don't take it personally in Big D.

"We just quietly go about our business," Stars coach Dave Tippett said.

Mike Modano
Mike Modano leads the Dallas Stars in overall scoring.

"Flying under the radar." (Tippett, understand, is a very flying-under-the-radar type guy.)

Yet here are the Dallas Stars, a point ahead of Los Angeles and holding three games in hand in the Pacific. Their 31 wins are tied for second most in the conference. If the playoffs opened Thursday, they'd be the second seed in the conference. Yet nobody's saying much about them.

Dallas is an oil town. A Texas town. A town of big money, big talk. A Michael Irvin, Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones kind of town. A swagger town.

There's not a lot of sass or strut to these Stars, though. Scan the NHL's top-20 point accumulators, squint until you go blind, and you won't find a Dallas Star among them. But Mike Modano and Bill Guerin and Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov and Marty Turco remain the poster boys for success.

They've lopped $32 million off a unwieldy payroll, shedding themselves of Pierre Turgeon, Valeri Bure, Scott Young and Chris Therien, among others, and in the process have become, as is fashionably said in today's NHL, "tough to play against." A nicely struck balance between offense and defense.

As of Wednesday, Dallas was tied for sixth in goal production among Western Conference clubs and tied for second in goals against.

"We've become a team," emphasized Tippett, a checking centerman for 721 NHL games during his playing days. "In the best sense of the word. A group of individuals that plays hard for each other. What you need to accomplish that is a willingness from the players to buy in, especially your top players."

For so long during the Ken Hitchcock era, which yielded so many great regular seasons but only one Stanley Cup, the Dallas mystique was centered around shutting people down. In Tippett's first season as coach in 2002-03, the emphasis had shifted to lighting people up.

This season, they've endeavored, with success, to strike a harmonious chord between the two, and are on their merry way to a second 100-plus-point season in Tippett's three seasons running the show.

Mike Modano has been a major factor.

Yes, Modo has the mojo again. Mentally reinvigorated by the rule changes that have opened up the game and play into his style, physically refreshed by the year-long lockout and eager to atone for a substandard 2003-04 campaign, the captain is looking his old self again. The bounce in those elasticized legs, it would seem, hasn't deserted him yet.

Already Modano and linemate Lehtinen have surpassed their disappointing statistical totals of the last season. Two years ago, Modano was a humiliating minus-23. So far this season, he's a team pace-setting plus-21. Offensively, he fell off the face of the earth in the prelockout year, tumbling from 85 points in 2002-03 to a pauper's 44, only 14 of those goals. At 33, there were whispers that perhaps the bottom had fallen away, like the floor of a magician's trick trunk.

So much for idle speculation.

"I was fortunate to be involved in the rules discussions during the work stoppage. … And one of the main thrusts of the rule changes was this: When a player creates an advantage, he should be allowed to keep it," Tippett said. "Given his speed and skill, Mike Modano's as good at creating advantages as anyone. But those advantages are nullified when someone's hooking and holding you all the way down the ice.

"I kind of tease Mike that when I played against him, I knew how to tie him up and he kind of fires back that I just dragged him down to my level. For both Mike and Jere, the last season was a frustrating time. Mike was fighting some mental issues and Jere had to deal with physical problems."

Neither one played the way they wanted to, or were capable of. Obviously.

"Mike's taken on a real leadership role," Tippett added. "We have a good group of veteran leadership on this team, but Mike's really stepped it up in that department."

A sprinkling of newcomers has helped freshen the mix. Finnish rookie Jussi Jokinen has fit in well on the left side of the big line, contributing 28 points. Trevor Daley, who played 27 games in 2003-04, has become a regular part of the defense corps, and Antti Miettinen is a steady part of the forward brigade.

That the Stars have managed to maintain their lofty position despite a recent dip in goaltending performance from Turco says a lot about the way they've been built by general manager Doug Armstrong.

"Marty started a little slow, but for the entire month of November and most of December, he was just great," Tippett said. "The last 12 or 13 games, though, I know he'd tell you himself that he's been inconsistent. Marty's a goalie who plays best when he's in a rhythm. He got sick just before Christmas and it kind of threw him out of that rhythm.

"The other night [a 4-1 win over Phoenix which snapped a three-game losing streak], he let in a shot I'm sure he'd like to have back. But after that, he knuckled down, and fought. He showed great determination. That's a really good sign."

There are many good signs for the Dallas Stars, despite the relative anonymity belying their accomplishments thus far.

Timing, understand, is everything. The Stars were ousted by the Colorado Avalanche in short order, five games, in the first round of the last playoff springtime. In Tippett's first season as coach, the breakout 111-point season, they were upset by unlikely upstart Anaheim in the second round.

No fanfare? No sweat. They seem quite content to go quietly about their business for the time being.

Flying under the radar isn't such a bad thing, provided you come into full view on the screen by mid-May.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.