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When the Dallas Stars opened the season with an altogether ordinary 6-6 record, no one was all that surprised.
They were, after all, one of the big-budget teams from the old NHL that were going to be brought to heel in the new salary cap NHL. There were aging veterans coming off subpar seasons, when last the NHL convened, thrown together with a bunch of unknown kids. They had a handful of players who had expended a great deal of time and emotion on the players' side of the lockout. Early on, it looked like goaltender Marty Turco was going to fall into the category of one of those netminders who simply couldn't adjust to the new equipment and rules.
Uh, not so fast.
It seems that Dallas coach Dave Tippett had an inkling things might not run so smooth out of the gate, and early on, he convened a group of the team's leaders and veterans to monitor quality control in the dressing room in a way that coaches and GMs can never accomplish.
The committee, which has dealt with things like the assimilation of a fine cast of young Finnish players, has been an important part of one of the quiet success stories of the NHL season.
"We've really put a lot of onus on our veteran players," Tippett said last week. Not just on the ice, "but to make sure our team is close, that we're a team that trusts each other."
It's obviously worked out.
With their shootout win over the San Jose Sharks on Saturday, the Stars have won four in a row and seven of nine since the Olympic break. Although they play in the much more difficult Pacific Division, the Stars have managed to keep Western Conference leader Detroit in sight, trailing the Wings by just four points for the top seed in the conference heading into play Monday.
Their comeback victory against the Sharks marked the 10th time this season they've come from behind in the third period to steal a victory, an NHL record (granted, that record is relative, given that the team has won four of those games in the shootout, new to the NHL this season).
"I never felt we were going to be as bad as people were predicting," GM Doug Armstrong said of a team that has given up the fewest shots in the NHL.
"Maybe some people didn't talk about us, but our expectations have always been high in the dressing room," added defenseman Philippe Boucher, who is having a breakout season with 35 points and a plus-24 rating. "It took us about a month to get going again. But after a month, nobody really pressed the panic button."
A glance at the team stats might indicate this is all being done by the old-timers like captain Mike Modano, who leads the team in points, and longtime linemate Jere Lehtinen, who is one goal off his career best with 30.
But Armstrong points to valuable contributions from youngsters like Steve Ott, Trevor Daley and Antti Miettinen as being crucial to the team's surprising success.
"The one player you hoped for the best, but couldn't have imagined, has been the success that Jussi Jokinen's had," Armstrong added.
Tippett just laughs when it's suggested the coach knew all along that all he'd have to do was put Jokinen (pictured above) in the shootout and he'd pretty much guarantee two points. But it's been true. Until he missed in Saturday's shootout, Jokinen had scored in nine straight shootout attempts. Although scouts questioned whether Jokinen was ready for the NHL, playing with Lehtinen and Modano has been a boost, as is the comfort of a dressing room with a plethora of Finnish countrymen. Both Armstrong and Tippett praise Lehtinen's quiet leadership as a factor in helping the other Finns adjust to life in the NHL.
If there is one player who illustrates the team's focus, it would be Modano. The Dallas captain drew unwanted attention as he blasted USA Hockey after the Americans were dispatched by Finland in the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament in Torino. Modano had not played well, was benched in the final game and his comments made him an easy target of critics. But Modano didn't duck the issue upon his return and his play suggested no post-Olympic hangover. He had a goal, two assists and a shootout goal Saturday and is a plus-24.
"His return to form from the Olympics doesn't surprise me at all because he's so focused on this franchise and so focused on this season," Armstrong said. "He's put everything in the proper compartment. He understands that our players look to him to be the alpha male on the ice."
-- Scott Burnside
The Oilers and Canucks, two of the six clubs fighting for the final four playoff spots in the West, will get to know each other really well this week. The Canadian cousins will play three consecutive games beginning Tuesday night in Edmonton. The mini-series moves to Vancouver for games on Thursday and Saturday. Obviously, the games are crucial for both teams. The Canucks, in particular, have been struggling of late, dropping six of their last seven games. They might not get any better against the Oilers, who've won all five previous meetings between the clubs. A sweep of these games by either club would go a long way toward putting that team in the playoffs.
Toronto at Montreal (Thursday): This is the first of two tilts in Montreal this week between two Original Six rivals with a playoff berth on the line. The Leafs' playoff hopes are on life support, and if they don't sweep the Habs at the Bell Center on Thursday, and then again Saturday, Leaf Nation can kiss the postseason goodbye.<
Who to start: Jarret Stoll has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Oilers this season. With three meetings against the Canucks this week, the quick center might add on to his 19 goals and 40 assists.
Who to drop: While Michael Cammalleri has been hot as of late, the Kings only play two games this week (Monday and Saturday). It might be best to sit him, while you might rack up PIM galore from the Leafs-Habs and Oilers-Canucks games.
This week could see some teams drop out of the playoff picture. Will we be saying goodbye to the Maple Leafs, Islanders and Wild? If so, our version will be DMC's. (Remember? DMC, aka Darryl "DMC" Matthews McDaniels and a member of Run DMC, the group that put rap on the map.) He's out with his first solo album, "Checks, Thugs & Rock 'N' Roll."
"I think it comes down to desperation. I really don't understand some of the efforts we're getting from some of the guys when we're supposed to be trying to make a push to get into the playoffs. It's astonishing."
-- New York Islanders coach Brad Shaw after his team lost its third straight game