It was only fitting that the Dallas Stars clinched a playoff berth in Chicago against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks on Tuesday night.
The win gave the Stars a record of 16-7-3 against the Central Division, a stark contrast to last season when they went a ho-hum 8-14-7 vs. their division. Dallas won 14 of its last 20 games last season and still fell just short of making the playoffs. The division record was a big reason.
Chicago has set the bar among this group of teams. And the Stars just took it from them. Tuesday’s performance was quite impressive, as Dallas simply repeated what they did the last time they visited the Windy City – they ended the first period with a 4-0 lead.
One of the keys to the season has been the goaltending position. Dallas basically has two starters, which means they always have a quality backup. How important is a backup goalie? Well, the Stars went 0-13 in games started by their backup over a 12-month stretch prior to this season (yikes). Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have each won 22 games or more this year.
I was asked by a friend from New York around Christmas time why the Stars have “suddenly turned things around.” While it looks sudden to the outside world, the truth is that this season’s success began three off-seasons ago, as General Manager Jim Nill began to get his ducks in a row, both among his staff and his player personnel.
The four most important people within a hockey organization are the GM, the head coach, the minor league head coach and the head of amateur scouting. You can’t get all four right unless you get the GM right, and the Stars did. Lindy Ruff’s experienced and steady hand at the helm of this team has given it unmatched direction and poise. Derek Laxdal plays the same system as Ruff’s, giving the players a more seamless transition, and he knows his first priority is development. And Joe McDonnell is a very experienced ally that came to the Stars with Nill from Detroit (the two re-wrote the book on “how to draft” while with the Wings).
Once Nill had all of his key people in place, he went out and added pieces to put the Stars in position where they are today – Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, among others.
Which leads us back to Tuesday night in Chicago. No Seguin. No problem. 6-1 Final. This team doesn’t miss a beat, mostly due to the philosophical mindset that the team has developed and become infectious among the team. The Stars have the upper hand in talent most nights, and the mental game is an advantage on others.
Is this team ready for the playoffs? Oh yes. Will they be challenged by the Hawks, the Blues, the Kings and the Ducks? You bet. But first there are eight games left. They have a four-point lead on the Blues and a six-point lead on the Hawks. Time to finish strong and take advantage of being the No. 1 seed in the west. At least that’s the idea.
While the Stars clinching a playoff spot is a big deal and all, bigger games loom ahead for Dallas. Who knows? They may even be back to Chicago before too long where leading 4-0 after one is a habit the Stars would like to continue.