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Recent road struggles raise new concerns about Stars' playoff readiness

Jamie Benn has not shied away from accepting responsibility for the Stars' recent struggles, including after a benching in a bad loss to the Rangers. AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

NEW YORK -- A host of questions answered emphatically by the Dallas Stars so far this season have suddenly been replaced by a series of even more tantalizing unknowns.

Four months ago, the hockey world wondered aloud whether offseason changes in personnel, and the continued maturation of rising stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, would be enough to push the Stars back into the playoff hunt after a disappointing step back last season that saw them miss the postseason.

Those questions were asked and answered many times over.

Now, having opened up a whopping lead in the tough-as-nails Central Division through the first half of the season, the nature of the questions has shifted to just how good the team really is and, more to the point, whether the Stars are Stanley Cup-good.

This line of questioning has been brought into sharper focus lately given that Dallas is now facing its first stretch of adversity this season. The Stars are hitting their first speed bump as they limp home after a 0-2-1 trip that included an embarrassing 6-2 defeat on Tuesday night to the struggling New York Rangers.

So disappointing was the team's play in New York that head coach Lindy Ruff kept captain Benn and Seguin on the bench for the last half of the third period, after the team's top line was on the ice for a Rangers goal late in the second period and then two more early in the third period that put the game out of reach.

"They had a tough night. There's no getting around it," Ruff said. "By the end of the night, I just didn't play them anymore."

The slide marks the first time this season the Stars have lost back-to-back games, and that they gave up six goals twice on the trip will add to the school of thought that maybe they just aren't good enough defensively, or in goal, to go the distance. Especially having to come out of the Central.

Or maybe it's simply the kind of hiccup that every single team encounters during the 82-game grind that is the regular season, whether they're bound for Stanley Cup glory or not.

"It always can't be a fairy tale," veteran Stars center Vernon Fiddler said in an interview after Tuesday's game. "There's going to be some adversity during the year. That's when we've really got to stick together. At the same time, we know that we're a good team, we just have to keep going."

Still, who could blame the Stars if, at least for a moment, they were thinking not about games 40 or 41 or 42, but what might be possible at the end of the regular-season road?

After his team missed the playoffs last season, GM Jim Nill added multiple Cup winners Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, both formerly of the Chicago Blackhawks. The team also identified other key areas in which they needed to improve.

"We talked about we had to have a good start to the season; we had a good start," Nill said. "We talked about how we had to be better at home; we've been better at home. We talked about back-to-backs; we've been good in back-to-backs. We were worried about our play last year against the Central Division. We've responded to that.

"I like how we've responded, but we can still get better. We've still got work to do."

A year ago, the Stars were tied for 26th in goals allowed per game (3.13). This season they've moved to the middle of the pack (16th, 2.64) while leading the NHL in goals scored per game (3.45) and ranking fourth in power-play efficiency (22.4 percent).

They are the hunted now as opposed to the hunters.

"Having the start that we did is definitely beneficial to not having to stare at the standings every single day, but we know we don't have that big of a gap between any of the teams, really. It's such a close division," Seguin said before Tuesday's loss in New York.

"But we have a lot more confident and mature group in here than we have had in the past when it comes to hockey and when it comes to not being on too much of an emotional roller coaster and staying patient in games and finding ways to win games. This is our first true test of adversity this year."

The transition from playoff also-ran to fighting for home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs has been both startling and subtle. And when a team takes the kinds of steps this Dallas team has taken, it's sometimes easy to overlook that evolution always happens one brick at a time.

With Benn, 26, and Seguin, 23, sitting second and third in points (52 and 50, respectively) and first and second in goals scored (24 and 23, respectively), one might not expect much to have changed, but that would be inaccurate.

If the Stars have become a more patient, dedicated group as a whole, Seguin says he feels he has become that way individually.

"In the past, I've gotten very frustrated and maybe a little bit too hard on myself mentally," he said.

"This year I've been able to stay patient and stick with certain things, not having to go and change everything, whether it be my routine or how I am on the ice, just being able to stay with it and know that things are going to come. You know if it's not working out, you just have to work harder."

The Stars' difficulties on the just-concluded trip notwithstanding, both Ruff and Nill believe they see in the team's biggest stars an understanding of the work that needs to be put in, to not just win games but to become a winning team.

"A little more quiet, actually," Nill said of the difference in his two young stars. "I'd say they're both a little bit more quiet. Maybe a little bit more humble. They have more responsibility. Lindy's put responsibility on them.

"Our best players have to be our best players all over the ice and we know if we're going to get better those type of guys have to lead it. That's where they have. They are sacrificing points to be better defensively. And they can still get better and they know it."

Ruff said Benn and Seguin don't duck responsibility when the team plays poorly.

"I think my conversations with both players, it's usually the first thing they say is, 'I've got to be better. I haven't been good enough,' " Ruff said.

"I think when a player realizes that small plays can turn into big plays or a small penalty can turn into a big loss, part of your coaching is done."

The veteran coach even sees value in the team's current struggles.

"It's easy to evaluate how you're going when things are going good," he said. "When you struggle, you want to see who are the guys that handle the adversity the best. You don't want to struggle, but you want to see who pushes their way through and who can have the mental discipline to play the game the right way. To stay with it. To know that, nah, maybe tonight we didn't get some breaks, but we didn't beat ourselves."

Certainly Benn, who took a lazy tripping penalty early in Tuesday's game to go along with his minus-3, made no bones about his poor play against the Rangers, meeting with reporters, shouldering the blame and accepting the benching as a just punishment.

"Pretty much did a good job of leading the way in the not-so-good part of the game tonight," Benn said after the game. "I played a terrible game and let my teammates down."

Former Dallas captain Brenden Morrow played alongside Benn during Benn's first NHL seasons and isn't surprised he has evolved into a force.

"He's the type of guy that everyone wants to be around," Morrow said. "He couldn't care less about getting the glory. He's kind of a guy's guy."

And there is still room for Benn to grow, Morrow added.

"The sky's the limit," Morrow said. "He's a monster. He plays the game the way I enjoy it being played."

Is this Stars team ready for what lies ahead if the players hope to bring home a second championship to match the one the Stars won in 1999?

Morrow admitted he was a bit skeptical, even when they got off to a sizzling start.

"I think everyone was kind of waiting for the bottom to fall out," he said. But now, halfway through the season, "I'm going to have to believe in them at this point."

And given the fast pace and creativity with which they play the game, Morrow said he's hoping the team's successes don't stop anytime soon.

"It's not the Ken Hitchcock, lock-it-down '99 Stars anymore," Morrow said.

Winning is the only true measuring stick, "but, honestly, who wouldn't rather watch a 6-5 win over a 3-1 win?" asked Morrow, who finished last season with the Stanley Cup finalist Tampa Bay Lightning but is not playing this season.

Stars fans have waited a long time for this kind of team. And they have responded with their hearts and their wallets, more than doubling the season-ticket base since new owner Tom Gaglardi took over in late 2011. They are at 98.5 percent of capacity for home games and the hockey community is growing by leaps and bounds.

A long playoff run would go a long way toward reaffirming that Big D is a big hockey town. All the Stars have to do is not get too far ahead of themselves.

"In the past, I've projected from Game 10 where our team was going to be, where I was going to be in my year," Seguin said.

"Now it's just take it game-by-game, day-by-day. Obviously, it's a lot more fun when you're winning, and I think these guys in here definitely love winning, but we're finding ways to hate losing even more, so I think that's a key transition in our game."

It's all part of the process, according to the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft.

"You can talk about it, but this is the first year where I really feel that as a team and as an individual, just respecting the process, respecting the system," Seguin said.

Benn puts it more bluntly.

"I think we're enjoying what's going on here, but like I said, we've got a long way to go," he said.

"I think we've changed a bit as we've gotten mature. We know we have a good team in here; much better than last year. This is really the season of no excuses."