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Best of Western Conference already leaving stragglers in their wake

Goalie Kari Lehtonen and the Stars have been playing well in the NHL's new Central Division. Goalie Kari Lehtonen and the Stars have been hot, but not hot enough to catch powerhouses like the Blackhawks. (Icon SMI)

By Allan Muir

All the Stars wanted out of the NHL's realignment this season was a chance to get away from the heavy travel and late starts that came with playing two time zones away from their competition in the old Pacific Division. It might also not have been a bad idea if Dallas had asked to tag along with the Red Wings and the Blue Jackets when they departed the Western Conference. But you can't have everything.

Still, the revamped Stars are enjoying a renaissance this season in the new-look Central Division, playing their most entertaining and competitive hockey in years. Dallas is coming off a 7-3-2 November that was powered by a quick-strike offense -- led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn -- and the brilliant play of goalie Kari Lehtonen. The Stars earned 16 out of a possible 24 points during the run, and looked impressive in victories over the Bruins, the Ducks and Detroit.

In the East, that kind of success would have them in the thick of a playoff race, battling for position with the Rangers, the Capitals and the resurgent Flyers. But for an upstart team such as Dallas -- or, for that matter, for the Predators and the Jets -- climbing into contention in the West isn't as easy.

The fact is, the Stars' surge left them treading water at a point when the conference's playoff invites are seemingly already in stone, if recent history is any indication. Dallas entered November in 13th place in the West, five points out of the eighth and final playoff berth. The Stars' solid November helped them jumped up to 11th ... but they're now six points out of eighth place. It doesn't matter how hot you are if the teams in front of you don't lose.

And that's exactly what's happening in the West, where it seems like most teams are enjoying unprecedented success this season. Forget the top half of the conference, where the Sharks are on pace to finish with the best record since the 1995-96 Red Wings went 62-13-7 (131 points); a 129-point campaign for San Jose would barely be enough to hold off the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks (on pace for 128 points) and the rising Blues (127) for the Presidents' Trophy. It's the bottom half of the conference's top eight clubs that is making things so difficult for bubble teams. Look at where the current 5-8 seeds will finish if they maintain their current pace:

The Avalanche, currently in fifth place, are on target for 124 points; the Kings, sitting in sixth, are steaming toward 109; the seventh-place Wild, despite their recent slide, are headed for 102; and the Coyotes, in eighth (with two games in hand), are on pace for 107.

The ninth-place Canucks, who are just one point behind Phoenix, also pose a formidable obstacle, even as they struggle to find consistency under first-year coach John Tortorella's. They haven't won back-to-back games in a month, they give up the first goal too often and Henrik Sedin has as many blocked shots as goals. Vancouver certainly has the talent to grab a playoff spot, but there's no way of telling if the team will jell in time.

Minnesota's position seems the most precarious. The Wild are wearing the tread off the tires of Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter, and they're leaning heavily on goalie Josh Harding, who has a limited track record, and who is playing despite having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. If Minnesota can keep up its current pace, the club's 102 points would be the highest total ever for an eight-seed under the current playoff format. The previous mark? The Flames' 96 points in 2006-07.

For the Stars to get to 102, they'd need to go something like 33-16-8 the rest of the way, taking 74 points from their final 57 games. It's hardly impossible, but averaging 1.3 points per game is a lofty goal for a club that averaged 1.1 during a hot month. And then there's the matter of leapfrogging the three teams that are currently ahead of them: the Predators, Canucks and the eighth-place Coyotes.

Outside of Sunday night's sloppy effort in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Oilers, Dallas has played some great hockey of late. The Stars won six straight on the road before stumbling in St. Louis on Nov. 23, and they gamely traded punches with heavyweight Chicago during an 11-round shootout loss last Friday. Dallas is getting terrific contributions from its third line of Vernon Fiddler, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt. The Stars also seem to be responding to coach Lindy Ruff in a way they didn't to Glen Gulutzan last season.

But with No. 1 defenseman Stephane Robidas lost for the season after he broke his leg in Dallas' loss to the Blackhawks, the Stars' inability to make hay at home (the are a very hospitable 4-3-4 at American Airlines Center) and their Western-heavy schedule mean they will be hard pressed to make a serious run in a playoff race that looks as if it is already down to nine teams. It appears that Dallas was realigned...right out of postseason contention.
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