A little over two weeks ago Dallas Stars fans began to worry that it all had just been a mirage, a dream from which waking meant facing reality. The Stars opened the season with a 5-1-0 record and it seemed that the slow starts and inconsistencies from seasons past had been forgotten and perhaps this team had finally found a way to move forward after two disappointing years. This was a team that could score at a torrid pace; here was a team with grit and heart who could win the close games in overtime and in the shootout that had become so elusive in recent seasons.
Perhaps the fans could actually feel good about the Dallas Stars this season, despite suffering through perhaps the most painful offseason this franchise has endured since making the move to Dallas.
Yet the Stars eventually did prove to be inconsistent. Big wins at home and against Eastern Conference opponents were offset by embarrassing losses to division rivals that seemed to only come in threes. An impressive homestand led immediately into a catastrophic road trip that could easily be defined as the low point in this young season. Suddenly a team that started so well had won just five out of 13 games and found themselves where everyone had expected them to be all along: at the bottom of the Western Conference.
In the past, this would be the point that the Dallas Stars would have fallen apart. There would have been some interesting quotes coming from a stressed out locker room; we would hear from established veterans who had more to say about what the team should be doing instead of ways they should be working on their own individual performances. A team with potential would just idly step aside as younger and more talented teams passed them by.
Not this season. From the drop of the puck in New Jersey we've known that this version of the Dallas Stars is different. Since hitting that low point the Stars are suddenly one of the hottest teams in the NHL and find themselves sitting at the top of the Pacific Division.
Throughout the long and painful summer that was the 2010 Dallas Stars offseason, we constantly looked to the future. Not the immediate future of the upcoming season but the long term future of a once-proud franchise that was struggling in the midst of ownership and financial disasters. It has been thought that unless the franchise was sold is as timely a fashion as possible then the Stars would be a team that was likely one or two more seasons -- at the very least -- from being able to contend with the rest of the division.
We were told the Stars' defense was too young, too inexperienced and just not good enough to sustain success.
Karil Lehtonen was an unproven commodity in net.
Mike Modano was gone and the Stars would struggle with leadership and defensive presence in Marc Crawford's aggressive offensive system.
The Stars needed defensive help and were in dire need of talented and skillful wingers that would be able to score and take pressure off the top line.
All valid concerns and with Modano and Marty Turco hitting the road it was easy to understand the chagrin of the Dallas Stars fan when the only addition was gritty winger Adam Burish. This wasn't the "splash" many felt the Stars needed to make in order to be competitive once more.
Despite playing with essentially the same roster as last season, with a major change occurring in net, we know now that the 2010-11 Dallas Stars are a completely different team. They act differently on the bench, there's a looseness about the players in the locker room and more importantly this is a team that is playing with confidence for the first time since May of 2008.
The Dallas Stars spent the last two seasons struggling to find their identity in the midst of chaos. Incredible expectations weighed down a Stars team in 2008 that was unable to overcome injuries to several key players and last season new coach Marc Crawford never appeared to truly be able to get his team to buy into the system he was wanting to build. Something happened this summer and in training camp, however, that forged this group of players brimming with potential into a team with incredible ability moving forward this season.
After three weeks in October, this was the feeling we were building on as the Stars roared off to one of the best starts in franchise history. A week ago this article wouldn't have existed.
A week ago, we were lamenting an incredibly disappointing performance in Toronto and we were left wondering just how wrong we might have been about the Dallas Stars. Perhaps this was a team that was still a few years away from taking that proverbial "next step", perhaps the Stars did need some true turnover on the roster to become competitive once again. Yet -- just as they have all season -- the Stars responded in a way we haven't seen in a long time in Dallas and rattled off four very convincing and incredibly important victories.
It's amazing how much difference just one week can make. After Monday's dominating effort in Carolina, the Stars have now returned to Dallas as a team that is brimming with confidence and is playing like a team that knows what it takes to not only win, but to win consistently. With the playoff race in the Western Conference likely to be closer that it ever has before, the Stars are showing they realize just how important each and every potential point is. Before, these players would not have won these close games but this season the Stars are showing they have the character to fight until the very last whistle -- and that's been the difference from previous seasons to now.
This is far from a perfect team and the Stars still have plenty of time to fall back to Earth. Just three points in the standings separate the Stars (3rd in the West) and the San Jose Sharks (12th) and losing just two games in a row could put the Stars right back in the basement of the conference, causing all those great feeling to immediately disappear. There's good reason to believe -- after seeing this team's response following that embarrassment in Toronto -- that this Dallas Stars team will feed upon the momentum that's been built and work harder each game than the one before.
The Dallas Stars might have the same basic roster as before before this is far from the same team. Brenden Morrow is once again the captain his teammates deserve. Mike Ribeiro is the playmaking center the team so desperately needed. Brad Richards is magical and Kari Lehtonen has been the steadying force the Stars obviously knew he would be. Jamie Benn is inspiring to any fan of hockey and instantly makes those around him better. These steps forward individually have driven a team to improve dramatically as a one cohesive unit and it's tied back to what Marc Crawford has preached since day one in training camp: be a tough team to play against and play for one another.
The Dallas Stars have a chance to expand their division lead tonight as they welcome the Washington Capitals in perhaps one of the most important regular season games this team has had in a very long time. The Stars are beginning to turn some heads around the NHL and not because of anything to do with the sale of the team; people outside of Texas are taking note that perhaps the Dallas Stars is a team to actually be taken seriously. A home win over the top team in the NHL would go a long way to only building upon the confidence this team already possesses but to actually start to build some respect back up for a proud hockey franchise.
Forget the ownership issues. Ignore the Brad Richards rumors. Enjoy watching your Dallas Stars play hockey.