Stars overcome Avery, injuries to climb back into West playoff race

February, 3, 2009
02/03/09
11:12
AM ET
On the morning of Dec. 2, moments before Sean Avery had parents scrambling for earmuffs for their kids, the Dallas Stars were staring up at 14 other teams in the Western Conference standings.

They were dead last.

Since that fateful morning, they have gone 15-7-3 and have made the long journey back into a playoff spot.

"Things are a little better now," Stars coach Dave Tippett told ESPN.com. "We've got our heads above water. Now we've got to push forward. We're back in the thick of things, but I still think we've got room to grow as a team."

In a parity-filled league that often hands out three points a game, gaining traction in the standings is no small feat, especially in the tougher Western Conference. But riding a season-high four-game winning streak heading into Tuesday night's home date with the mighty Calgary Flames, the Stars were sixth in the West. And they've done all this while missing captain Brenden Morrow and top defenseman Sergei Zubov.

OK, so they're tied in points with the four teams beneath them, but still, it's been a long and impressive road back.

"Even though we're sitting in sixth in that pile of teams, we're not happy or content by any stretch," Stars goalie Marty Turco told ESPN.com. "We're going to continue on with that full-speed-ahead attitude that we've had. We're not going to win all the rest of the games, but we're planning on playing like winners, and that's going to give us an edge that we were looking for."

Avery's departure from the team is a factor, but far from the only reason the Stars have righted the ship. It would be too simplistic to lay it all in the troubled winger's lap. Yes, the Stars are happy he's gone, but they had other issues, with or without him.

"It hasn't been just one thing in particular, but overall, it's just generally been our way of playing," Turco said. "We're playing as a team. Right down to a man, guys are playing better. Our defensive-mindedness has been tremendously better."

They have indeed tightened their game, allowing almost one fewer goal per game (2.84) in the past 26 games, compared to 3.77 per game in the ugly opening 22 games. There are other factors, as well. Getting wingers Jere Lehtinen and Steve Ott back was important. Having rookie forwards James Neal and Fabian Brunnstrom, in particular, learn on the job and improve was another; they replaced veterans such as Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen, and those were big skates to fill. And seeing young defensemen Matt Niskanen and Niklas Grossman settle down and grow in confidence was also key.

"Bringing in Darryl Sydor was a good thing," Tippett said. "He's really helped with Niskanen."

And finally, Tippett said, as he read off a checklist of reasons for his team's turnaround, there's the guy in goal.

"And the be-all and end-all, the goaltender has played better," Tippett said with a chuckle. "Part of that is the team in front of him has played better, but the goaltender himself has played much better."

The thing we admire most about Turco is his honesty. He was outspoken during the Avery debacle, not hiding his feelings, but backed it up big-time with his play. He wasn't happy with his own play, or the play of his teammates, and also let it be known at the time.

"A big reason the push has occurred is that guys got downright mad and sick of it and [have] taken it personally. I know I have," Turco said.

Credit Tippett for helping right this ship, as well. His voice did not get stale. He found a way to get his message across, and the players have listened.

Having said all that, we can't forget the Avery factor. He never fit in with his teammates, and once he left, the room settled.

"The change in chemistry with Sean leaving had an impact on our dressing room," Tippett said.

What comes next for the Stars will be fascinating to watch. Will they remain a bubble team, or push even higher and get back to being the contending team they were last season? The Anaheim Ducks are vulnerable in fifth place of the conference. Fourth-place Chicago might be too much to track down.

"I don't anticipate this team needing any more lessons and needing any more reminders of the position we're in," Turco said. "We pay attention to where we are in the standings. It's been a habit over the course of this season. As a group, we appreciate the dwellers that we were and what it's taken to climb back in the playoff picture. I don't think anybody in the locker room is content."

The confidence is back in a group that was absolutely shaken two months into the season.

"When you're winning and doing the right things, that's contagious," Tippett said. "If your locker room is right, the coach does less talking about the right things to do and the players do all the talking for you. That's a little bit of where we are right now."

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