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How Stars united to fuel playoff chase

4/15/2013

Two games could have defined the Dallas Stars' season. With the front office still in decision mode on how to approach the trade deadline and what to do with Derek Roy and Jaromir Jagr, the Stars played the Anaheim Ducks on April 1. With a strong showing, maybe there would have been motivation to keep one or both.

They lost 4-0. They traded Roy and Jagr the next day.

In their first post-deadline game, now without Jagr, Roy and captain Brenden Morrow, who was traded to the Penguins the previous week, the Stars lost to the Ducks again. This time 5-2. That's when I wrote them off for the season and I probably wasn't alone.

On April 4, they were 13th in the Western Conference, minus three of their best players and five points outside a playoff spot.

That day, coach Glen Gulutzan met with his leadership group and made a decision. The practice scheduled for 2 p.m. was scrapped. Instead, Gulutzan opted to send the team bus down to Newport Beach for a lunch on a perfect California day. Maybe even let the guys enjoy an afternoon beer or two.

The bus returned at 3 p.m. and Gulutzan checked to see how many players came back with it. There wasn't one.

"They all stayed down together," he said when we chatted this weekend.

In one of the scheduling quirks that a lockout-shortened season brings, the Stars played the Ducks for the third consecutive game that Friday. The morning skate featured a few sunburned faces but there was also a team more relaxed and ready to play the game the way Dallas needs to in order to win games. The way they should have been playing all season.

This time, they beat the Ducks 3-1. They haven't lost since.

Their 2-1 win over the Sharks on Saturday was their fifth consecutive and they've beaten good teams along the way. The Ducks, the Sharks twice, the Kings and a 5-2 win over Nashville.

On Sunday, the Stars were in a playoff spot even if it lasted less than 24 hours after the Red Wings pulled ahead with a shutout win over the Predators on Sunday night. With seven games left, the Stars are showing they have the fight left to break their streak of postseason misses.

"Our mentality has changed," Gulutzan said. "After the trades, the guys realized that we weren't as talented as a group. If we wanted to get in we have to get in the way we talked about playing all season long. You have to add in the fact that there's a lot of people that counted us out. When we looked within our walls, we felt we had enough to get in. We still believe that."

Players young and old have emerged to fill the departure of veterans. Former Boston University star Alex Chiasson has six goals in his first six NHL games since making his debut on April 3.

That pace isn't sustainable, but in Chiasson, a 2009 second-round pick, Gulutzan sees a forward who plays an NHL game. He is patient, smart, willing to hold pucks and make plays. He has the kind of cerebral approach to hockey that many former college players bring to the NHL.

"He has real good detail to his game, goes to the net hard," Gulutzan said.

Vernon Fiddler has nine points in his last five games, taking advantage of extended minutes at center and more responsibility following the deadline trades. He's centering a line with Erik Cole and Eric Nystrom, and Mike Heika did a great job breaking down the impact that line has had during the win streak.

Nystrom has also emerged as a real leader on this team, which isn't bad for a guy who was seen as merely an attempt to get to the salary-cap floor when he was acquired from the Wild in October 2011.

"An underrated hockey player," Gulutzan said. "Very understated. He competes every night. Every night. He's a team guy and, oh man, his bloodlines [as son of former Islander Bob Nystrom] obviously speak for themselves."

He's an unrestricted free agent after this season, one of the few decisions GM Joe Nieuwendyk and assistant GM Frank Provenzano will have to deal with on a young roster that's mostly returning next season.

Now comes the hardest part for the Stars. The path to the Stanley Cup playoffs through the years is littered with teams that rattled together a series of wins once the pressure was off, raising hopes, only to see the momentum crash when the pressure returned.

The Stars are at that point.

They're back in the hunt, very much a serious contender to make the postseason if they can play with that same edge they've enjoyed since the hockey world counted them out. They just don't have any room for error or a return to pre-deadline play.

The first test comes Monday night against the Blackhawks, who beat Dallas 8-1 the last time they played. On Sunday, Gulutzan said he hadn't ruled out a return of starting goalie Kari Lehtonen, who is day-to-day with a groin injury, but Gulutzan also has complete faith in Richard Bachman, who has been outstanding during the streak. In three April games, Bachman is 3-0, with a .963 save percentage and 1.09 goals-against average.

The Chicago game is the start of four road games in the next five contests for the Stars and each of those games is against a team in a playoff spot. In fact, the only current nonplayoff team they face the rest of the season is the Columbus Blue Jackets and they only have the hottest goalie in the NHL right now.

Their final game of the season is at home against the Red Wings, and it very well could be for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

If they get in, the Stars will definitely have earned it.

Forsberg's Debut

Nashville's talented prospect Filip Forsberg made his NHL debut Sunday in a loss to Detroit, playing 18:37 and finishing a minus-2 with two shots.

"Of course it is a big difference from where I play and of course the players have much more skill than I am used to, but yeah, it was a high tempo out there," Forsberg told NHL.com's John Manasso.

The Predators are always very intentional in not rushing young players and there isn't a better organization in the league when it comes to player development. So the fact that Forsberg is getting a taste of the NHL as an 18-year-old shows just how highly they think of the talented Swede. There was some speculation that the Capitals, who traded Forsberg to the Predators at the deadline, soured a bit on Forsberg after taking him with the 11th pick in 2012. But based on the excitement in the voice of Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton on the day they acquired Forsberg, that opinion isn't shared within the Predators organziation. Not even close.

"We're thrilled to get this kid," Fenton said when we chatted on deadline day. "We think he's an absolute top-notch player. You call him prospect; we think he's a player."

What do they like best?

"We love the size. Love the power. I love his skill level," Fenton said. "He drops his shoulder, he can go into the net hard. He goes into traffic for a big man and comes through with the puck. And his intensity. We think he's absolutely, completely a first-line player."