With Richards Drama Ended Focus Shifts Back to Playoff Race

A Star still.

Good morning, Dallas Stars fans. Our long nightmare (sometimes called "February") is over. March is here. The Stars are getting healthier. They've won their last two games. New addition Alex Goligoski is fitting in swimmingly. They hold, this morning, a very precious commodity: The last playoff spot in the West.

And oh yeah, Brad Richards is still a Dallas Star.

The trade deadline has come and gone and the Stars best player is still the Stars best player for the next 20 games and what we all hope will be more. Stars fans had grown tired of the endless Brad Richards rumor mill. The organization has been used as a verbal punching bag in recent weeks and everyone with an internet connection has pondered very publicly why the Dallas Stars would even think of keeping Richards, as if they have no chance of re-signing him whatsoever.

As the deadline came and went yesterday Brad Richards made his position clear to those folks. "I'm a Dallas Star. These are my friends, these are my teammates."

Joe Nieuwendyk has been just as exasperated as the rest of us evidently, adding later "I get a kick out of watching all of the media, in Toronto especially, saying who could use Brad Richards...Well you know what, our team could use him too. We're sitting in a playoff spot, and it's not like we're sellers. We're trying to make the playoffs and make a run here ourselves."

So it's over and done. July will come eventually and we'll point our keyboards and our questions back in the direction of this nonsense then. Today the distractions are ended. Today Stars fans get to turn their attention back where it belongs: On the 20 games separating the Dallas Stars from their first playoff berth since 2008.

And what a 20 game set it is...

The center piece of the road back to the playoffs is undoubtedly the seven game home stand encompassing March 9th through the 23rd, but the four game road trip the Stars begin tonight will set the tone for that stretch.

A strong swing through the Pacific Division (@Phoenix, @Anaheim, @San Jose, @Los Angeles) and Dallas can find themselves anywhere from 4th through 8th at it's conclusion, ready to use that home stand to solidify their position. On the other hand, a disappointing trip will produce headlines like "Stars must use home stand to save their season," and if the last two years have taught us anything it's that teams chasing in March are probably not going to make it in.

This morning the math says 94 points will get you a date with Vancouver in April. I'll put my money on 95 points being the magic number and for that the Stars need to finish the year three games above .500 at something like 10-7-3 or 11-8-1. That's quite the reversal from the .292 hockey they played in February.

9 of the Stars 14 games in March come against Pacific Division opponents. That's a bit of a good news/bad news situation.

First the bad news: Dallas is the only team in the Pacific with a losing record in the division at 5-6-2. Four Pacific Division teams are currently in playoff spots with Anaheim only one point out. History says sending four teams from one division (in this, the 30 team NHL) is a rarity, and sending all five is a real stretch. Chances are only three teams will get in, and if the Stars want to be one of them they'll have to tear the Kings or Coyotes out of it themselves while holding off Anaheim at the same time.

The good news is that with so many games against teams in, to borrow a cycling term, the "peloton", the Stars are in complete control of their own destiny and nearly every game left on the schedule can be considered a "four point game" if ended in regulation.17 of the Stars remaining 20 games are against Western Conference teams currently in that tight group fighting for positioning. Of the three that aren't, one is against the Flyers, and two are against the Avalanche, who seem to have forgotten which end of their sticks to hold onto lately.

Scoreboard watching in March and April is an even more useless activity (though I do love it) than it has been up until now. Just look at games coming up the next week or so... Phoenix vs Los Angeles. Nashville vs. San Jose. Columbus and St. Louis. Who do you want to see win those games? Is "nobody" an option?

The only scoreboard watching we can do now involves the Stars directly. Their future is in their hands.

Dallas must follow the blueprint they laid out earlier in the year. It's the same way they beat Nashville on Saturday: Strong goaltending, win the special teams battle, get their best players involved (like Loui Eriksson lately) and limit number of quality chances against. Add to that list "continue working in Goligoski effectively", hope Brad Richards can hit the ground running next week, keep Jamie Benn pointed in the direction he is now, and there's no reason why the Stars can't punch their ticket to Round 1 on April 10th or sooner.

The front office may not have added anything yesterday but the retention of Brad Richards and the addition of Alex Goligoski sends a clear message. The expectation is to get into the playoffs. Now that the trade deadline distraction has passed, it's time for the players to execute and for us to support them. The playoffs, albeit cliche, start NOW.

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