Wednesday February 20th, 2008

You'll have to forgive Dallas Stars fans for regarding the team's scorching 9-1 streak with more than a hint of skepticism. Although most of them reside in Texas, they've lived in a perpetual state of show-me since before the lockout.

The Stars, after all, have fashioned a reputation not unlike baseball's Atlanta Braves: a regular-season powerhouse that fizzles dramatically under playoff pressure. At least the Stars haven't made their fans suffer for long at any one time. Dallas has bowed out in the first round in each of its past four postseason appearances.

So even though weekend wins over Ducks in Anaheim and the Red Wings at home have the Stars poised to win their eighth divisional title in 11 seasons, the faithful are loathe to dream big. Can't say I blame them, but they might want to allow themselves a sliver of hope. I'm starting to think that this team might just have something after all.

Sure, it's not a particularly compelling squad on paper. The Stars are a team without a gamebreaker like Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg or Anaheim's Teemu Selanne or San Jose's Joe Thornton. Two of their top-three goal scorers, Mike Ribeiro and Niklas Hagman, were another club's trash before being picked up for scraps. Their biggest star, Mike Modano is, at 37, a shadow of the offensive force he once was. And their top two defenders, Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher, have been sidelined for months. They remain weeks away from returning.

But all that has worked to the advantage of coach Dave Tippett, who is putting together a Jack Adams-worthy campaign by reminding these Stars that they don't have the talent to win on a nightly basis without 20 horses pulling in the same direction. Through 63 games, that's pretty much what they've done, scrapping and clawing their way to 79 points and the second-best record in the NHL.

To many observers, the Stars turned their ship around shortly after general manager Doug Armstrong was relieved of his duties on Nov. 14. But if the playoff jinx is smashed and this season is looked back upon fondly, the memorable date on the calendar might turn out to be Feb. 1. That's the day that steady veteran Jere Lehtinen returned to the lineup after missing 33 games with an abdominal injury. Lehtinen gave the Stars the balance that has powered the recent streak, putting distance between them and their Pacific Division challengers.

Sure, the Stars were winning, and more surprisingly, scoring, while Lehtinen was sidelined. Players like Hagman (tied for the league-lead with eight game-winners), Steve Ott and Antti Miettinen (both with career highs in goals) have stepped up their games in response to Tippett's deft handling and demands for more finish to go with the effort.

But with Lehtinen on board, the Stars now have an effective if unimposing top six. The first line centers around the dynamic chemistry between Ribeiro and captain Brenden Morrow, with Miettinen currently riding shotgun, and a second line of Modano, Lehtinen and Ott that gets shutdown minutes and is capable of chipping in offensively. And while co-GMs Les Jackson and Brett Hull are expected to try to improve the mix before next Tuesday's trade deadline, the pressure to add a big-name impact forward is nowhere near what it was over the summer when Armstrong failed to airlift in some help in the wake of the team's punchless playoff ouster.

Honestly, it may be better for the Stars' chances if their tinkering is limited to a bit of spit and polish. Their no-name approach has them flying under the radar, but is also what makes them a more difficult team to defend. Given Tippett's proclivity for mixing lines between and during games, the Stars remain a cipher to opponents who find themselves overwhelmed by their aggressive but calculated forecheck and a power play that ranks among the game's most deadly.

While the offense has revved up, the Stars remain defensive to the core. Marty Turco, who earned his 200th career win last Friday night in Anaheim, looks sharper than he has all season. He's run up a 7-1 record since the break, with a 1.74 GAA and a .935 save percentage. Backup Mike Smith has emerged as a reliable alternative. If Turco is felled for a lengthy period, the team has reason to believe that Smith could step in seamlessly.

The blueline has, improbably, proven to be one of the league's most effective, despite the routine presence of three rookies. Matt Niskanen, Niklas Grossman and Mark Fistric have each exceeded expectations while stepping into roles well beyond their years. The March return of Zubov, whose play earlier in the season demanded that he be in the Norris Trophy mix, and Boucher, who could be back later this month, will give the Stars an enviable depth chart. The kids don't have playoff experience, but their exposure likely will be decreased in the postseason, with the well-rested vets assuming the bulk of the load.

It's best not to read too much into the successes of last weekend, especially Sunday's win over the Wings, a team that's had Dallas's number for years. But know that while the Stars will use the exact same approach against Calgary and Edmonton this week, they'll do it with an even greater belief in Tippett's all-hands-on-deck system.

As they steam toward the playoffs, that should be enough to ensure that tje Stars' years of frustration end this spring.

Nice to see Thomas Vanek finally starting to earn his fat contract. Not only did he break character by promising that the Sabres would make the playoffs, he's powered their current 5-2-1 stretch with eight goals -- by far his best roll of the season. He also notched his first career hat trick last week against the Senators. This should give you a quick sense of how frustrating Vanek's season has been to this point: his one-night effort equaled his monthly output for October, November and January...

Word out of Carolina is that the 'Canes hope to have 2007 first-rounder Brandon Sutter signed and in the lineup before the end of this season. The gritty winger wouldn't be available to join the team until his WHL season ends, but with his Red Deer Rebels the Eastern Conference caboose, Sutter could be in Raleigh as soon as March 16...

Odd decision by the Kings to send rookie Brian Boyle back to Manchester of the AHL on Sunday. The massive (6-7, 240) forward/defender seemed to be earning his keep with the big club, scoring four goals in eight games since his call-up on Feb. 2, but he was demoted in favor of Lauri Tukonen, the 11th overall pick in 2004. It might be that everyone with any chance of contributing down the line is getting a look-see. Or, with his development apparently stalled in Manchester, it's possible that Tukonen is being showcased prior to Tuesday's trade deadline. Someone might be enticed to take a chance on the 6-2, 200-pound right winger with the hope that he'll be a late bloomer. For his part, expect Boyle to be back in LA, perhaps as soon as next week, to finish the season...

The Canadiens broke the hearts of Denver University fans last week when leading scorer Brock Trotter left school and signed a three-year contract with Montreal as a free agent. Trotter, 21, had 13 goals and 31 points for the Pioneers, but was suspended by the team for unspecified reasons prior to leaving school. The junior winger was the second player this season, after Minnesota forward Kyle Okposo, to leave school early to sign a pro contract. Trotter was assigned to Hamilton of the AHL. Look for Boston University defender Matt Gilroy to be the next FA signee, possibly by the Bruins or the Hurricanes...

Chris Chelios, 2010 Olympian? That's a possibility he explored during a recent USA Hockey conference call: "In the role I'm playing now, it's going to be tough. I'm kind of comparing myself to a relief pitcher in baseball where I'm basically penalty killing and [playing] defensive situations. [But] I would love to play. I'd be honored. It's a ways away still, so a lot can happen. I feel great. I don't want to hold any young kid from getting a spot on the team, but by the same token, I'm not ready to give it up, either."

On the surface, Chelios on the U.S. Olympic squad sounds about as likely as if you'd inserted your own name on the roster. After all, he'll be 48 by the time the Vancouver Games get underway and the American blueline corps has the potential to be the country's best ever. Brian Rafalski, Mike Komisarek, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Ryan Suter, Ryan Whitney and possibly Mathieu Schneider are contending for spots. But if one of the youngsters struggles, or injuries crop up, the ageless wonder may get his chance. In the meantime, it'll be interesting to watch how Chelios responds to the added minutes he'll get with Nicklas Lidstrom sidelined in Detroit for the next 10-14 days.

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