Wednesday February 18th, 2015

Here’s the choice for the Stars down the stretch: Define themselves by who isn’t in the lineup, or define themselves by who is.

For one night at least, they made the right call.

Led by Jamie Benn’s first career hat trick and a magnificent 27-save performance from Kari Lehtonen, undermanned Dallas banded together on Tuesday night to knock off the Blues 4–1 in St. Louis.

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It was the second game the Stars had played since losing Tyler Seguin (knee), Patrick Eaves (head) and Ales Hemsky (lower body) to injury. That’s three of Dallas’s top-six forwards. Not many teams can take that kind of hit.

The absence of Seguin is particularly devastating. Seguin—the Stars’ No. 1 center, and one of the top offensive players in the game—defines the attack with his speed, his vision, his release and his ability to find open ice. As Dallas’s lone game-breaking threat, he’s irreplaceable.

It would be easy then for the Stars to use his absence as a reason to start folding their tents and preparing for next season. Instead, they dug deep on Tuesday night and found the answers they needed against one of the league’s best teams.

“In my career coaching, I’ve seen where sometimes [losing a star player] can make you stronger,” Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said last weekend. “It can give another guy an opportunity, and you don’t use it as an excuse. You use it as an opportunity. And it’s another guy’s opportunity. When guys have been dying for a better opportunity, here’s your opportunity, and grab it and run with it.”

Sometimes that's just a polite way to remind everyone that they're still on the clock and are expected to show up for work. But the Stars really seemed to buy in. Jason Spezza played against the Blues at a full gallop. The Stars’ new top center rekindled his early-season chemistry with Benn (with two primary assists and a secondary assist) to key his linemate’s hat trick. Cody Eakin also played well in his first game as Dallas’s No. 2 center, scoring his 11th goal of the season. The ability of Spezza and Eakin to spark the offense will be further tested over the next month.

The Stars’ biggest performance on Tuesday night, though, came from Lehtonen, the one player who can make or break the team's chances down the stretch. The veteran goalie has been under fire all season for being maddeningly inconsistent, but is showing signs that he might finally be on track. His record in his last four starts is 4-0-0, with a 1.49 goals-against average and a .959 save percentage on 145 shots faced

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It would be easy to point to last week’s trade for goalie Jhonas Enroth as the much-needed boot in the rump for Lehtonen, but he actually got his groove back before the deal, with a 34-save effort against the Rangers on Feb. 8. The win over New York, during which Lehtonen made 19 stops in a frantic third period, found the goalie playing a simpler, less reactive game. His performance wasn’t about making spectacular saves. It was about being in the right place, about letting pucks hit him and controlling his rebounds.

It was also about a better team effort in front of him. Dallas has been a defensive work-in-progress for most of the season, particularly as a raft of raw kids have moved in and out of the blueline corps. But there’s been more focus evident in the Stars’ defensive play over the last 10 days, more of a commitment from the team’s forwards to watch their gaps and give the defensemen easier outlets. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach that Dallas will need to maintain in order to keep going in the face of cruel adversity.

The victory over St. Louis pulled the Stars to within four points of the Sharks and the final wild card berth in the Western Conference. There’s still a long way to go, especially for a team that’s struggled to win consistently at home. But by beating one of the NHL’s best teams on the road, and with some of their best players out of the lineup, the Stars showed, for one night at least, that they’re not going to let injuries define their season.

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