Signs point to strong playoff run for these Stars

DALLAS -- If there is an advertising slogan that defines the recent Dallas Stars playoff performances, it would be this:

"Lunch Bag Letdown."

Or "Where's The Beef?"

Or "You Stink!" OK, that's not really an advertising slogan, but it also fits.

You get the picture. Dallas fans certainly do. So does the team.

It's why there have been enough changes (some significant, others more subtle) to suggest this season is finally the season the Stars get it right. That doesn't necessarily mean winning a Stanley Cup, but rather Dallas finally looks capable of making a dent come playoff time instead of being postseason fodder as in recent years.

The changes couldn't come at a better time. The Stars are in a crucial period of needing to find the passageway between regular-season and playoff success in order to shore up fan support that has grown weary of postseason busts. Since losing in the 2000 Stanley Cup finals, the Stars have won just two playoff rounds. In three straight seasons, they have bowed out in the first round despite piling up 107, 112 and 97 points, respectively, in those campaigns.

And so, as the regular season winds to its conclusion, there is both anticipation and a little anxiety as the playoffs approach. Veteran stars like Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen aren't getting any younger. And as fine a coach as Dave Tippett is, if the Stars can't escape the first round this spring, the team will likely go in another direction.

Still, there is a different feel about this team this time around.

In recent seasons, the Stars relied almost solely on Modano to create offense. And with all due respect to the former captain, that train left the station some years ago. Last season, the Stars hit the postseason as the second-lowest scoring team in the Western Conference playoff bracket. They then managed to score just 12 goals in seven games against Vancouver, four of which were scored in the first game of a series Dallas would lose in seven.

This season?

Modano has found his niche as a third-line checking center playing mostly with Lehtinen and gritty Steve Ott. This season, Modano became the highest-scoring American-born player in NHL history, and he still takes a regular turn on the Stars' power play, often manning the point. But the team's depth up front is better than it has been in years, so the classy veteran has less pressure to produce and (surprise, surprise) he is producing just fine, thank you. With nine games left in the regular season, Modano had eclipsed last season's 43-point total (he has 50 in 73 games).

"Mo's playing at a high level. There's no sense that his game is falling off," Stars co-interim GM Les Jackson recently told ESPN.com.

The main catalyst for this change in the Stars' offensive dynamic has been the emergence of Montreal Canadiens castoff Mike Ribeiro as a top-line scorer. With 76 points in 70 games, Ribeiro is in the top 15 among NHL scorers. Not bad for a guy who, deemed too disruptive or immature in Montreal, was acquired for Janne Niinimaa and a fifth-round pick (the equivalent of a bag of slightly worn pucks). Dallas also got a sixth-round pick out of the deal.

But other elements of the Stars' attack have observers believing this team has the potential to do some postseason damage.

Brenden Morrow (26 goals through 72 games) has stayed healthy and has found a nice bond with Ribeiro. Loui Eriksson has shown signs of being a productive offensive contributor. Niklas Hagman, cast off by Florida for a seventh-round draft pick during the 2005-06 season, has rediscovered his confidence and, as a result, has become more creative with the puck -- earning more time on the power play and with the team's top players. The result? Hagman has become a goal magnet with a career-best 25 goals, including eight game winners through 72 games, tied for third-most in the NHL.

All in all, the Stars hit the home stretch with the eighth-most productive team in the NHL, averaging 2.88 goals per game. A season ago, they were 22nd.

"They're hard to play against because they're so well-balanced," former Calgary GM Craig Button said in a recent interview. "You can't just key on Mike Modano. You can't just key on Mike Ribeiro. You can't just key on Brad Richards."

On the back end, the Stars continue to be a model of defensive efficiency.

Goaltender Marty Turco continues to play like a man who will command a place on the Canadian Olympic team in 2010, and the Stars are ranked seventh in team defense with less than a month to go in the regular season. All of this has been accomplished without Sergei Zubov since midseason, without Philippe Boucher (who has played only 32 games) and without Mattias Norstrom for 16 games (mostly due to a fractured orbital bone).

In their place, smooth-skating youngster Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman and rugged Mark Fistric (whom the Stars would not give up when they acquired Richards from Tampa at the trade deadline) have all logged valuable minutes.

"They found out a lot about their team by going [through] the fire, so to speak," Button said.

Assuming Zubov returns in the next couple of weeks (Boucher is more of a question mark with recurring shoulder problems), the Stars will boast terrific defensive depth heading into the postseason.

"Dallas has upgraded their mobility on the blue line," said NHL analyst Darren Pang, whose work with division rival Phoenix puts him in regular contact with the Stars. "Their first pass out of the zone is better, and not just from Zubov anymore. Niskanen has been a real great, young addition. They turned pucks over last year playing an East-West game.

"They are a harder team to play against now and have three centers that can go far in the playoffs," Pang added. "They also have a goalie that was brilliant last year in the playoffs, so there is belief in the net, not doubt."

All of which brings us to Richards, the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner whom many believe might have been the most important trade-deadline acquisition. One former GM told ESPN.com he thought the Stars had "stolen" Richards from Tampa and the addition made them instant Cup contenders. He helped guide the Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup with an NHL-record seven game-winning playoff goals.

Adding five assists in his first game with the Stars did little to lessen the enthusiasm for what Richards brings to their playoff table. What observers say they like about Richards is that he gives the Stars another North American presence. If there was a knock against recent Stars playoff teams, it was the belief they weren't tough. There is no question that last season's addition of Ladislav Nagy from Phoenix, which cost former GM Doug Armstrong a first-round draft pick, pales in comparison to the addition of Richards.

So, let's recap.

Deep down the middle. Young players maturing. Veterans having career years. Terrific goaltending.

Look at every Stanley Cup champion from the past 20 years -- heck, 50 years -- and you're likely going to see the same ingredients.

So is there unbridled anticipation this coming postseason? A temptation to look ahead and wonder what might happen?

Uh, no.

"The first thing is that you've got to get there, and then you'd better be prepared to play well," Tippett said. "That's called coaching. It's my job to take the temptation out of there.

"You have to earn the right to be considered a good team."

And that right is earned in wins and losses, not looking ahead to what might be. No matter how great the temptation.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.