Dallas Stars Continue Impressive Turnaround In Tough Loss To Penguins

via www.myhockeyshots.com

If we look back to just two weeks ago there was discussion about whether this team should be dismantled completely and Joe Nieuwendyk should begin a full rebuild around a handful of core players. After a tough loss to the Nashville Predators, the Stars looked like a team that just didn't have enough; despite some hard work in most games the Stars continued to fall short with bad decisions and turnovers.

In such a competitive Western Conference, the Stars had failed to take advantage of the teams around them in the standings struggling and were falling behind in the playoff race. With the trade deadline looming, the debate about whether the Stars should trade Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott raged -- trades that would effectively end this season's hopes for a playoff berth.

What's happened since then has been nothing short of remarkable. The Stars have found another level of play, even without Jamie Benn, and have taken some of the best teams in the NHL to final whistle.

In one of the best games we'll see all season the Stars and Penguins went back and forth that culminated in a tough shootout loss for the Stars. After going down a goal early in the third period the Stars instantly fought back and tied the game and nearly won the game several times at the end of regulation and overtime.

"That's a good sign for our hockey club," Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said. "I think we outshot both opponents here and thought the games were pretty even, both games. It's an important thing for our psyche moving forward and into this last month of March or our last 18 games now."

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"I thought it was a really good hockey game," said Gulutzan. "Both teams played hard and well. Unfortunately we couldn't get the extra point."

Two months ago the Stars would have been dominated by the Pittsburgh Penguins. We've witnessed in games against San Jose and Detroit that the Stars were outclassed at times and despite a hard working style would fail to overcome a lack overall talent.

As we've seen the past few games against Vancouver and Pittsburgh, the Stars have found a way to harness their blue-collar mentality into an aggressive and speedy game that allows them to compete with any team in the NHL. That this win would once again come in front of a rowdy and loud home crowd is encouraging and for the players, a sign that their hard work is finally paying off.

"The building, the fans were really into it, you could feel it. It was kind of a back-and-forth game with the score and it was a fun game to be a part of there," said Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski. "We couldn't pull it out in the end, but we'll take our point and move on."

Despite the shootout loss the Stars showed the rest of the NHL the resolve they've built over the course of the season. Despite the losses in late January and February we could see this was a team that wasn't giving up and was working hard, perhaps too hard at times. We wrote about how the Stars' confidence was shaken and how despite their efforts they failed to get the important points needed for a playoff push.

Game by game, however, the Stars improved and it has culminated in a wild five-game points streak against some tough competition. Jamie Benn, who missed nearly two weeks with a lacerated thigh, returned to a confident and hard-charging team that came close to pulling off an incredible win against a very good Penguins team.

"It felt good" said Benn of his return to the ice. "It's tough watching games, I've watched a few too many this year and it felt good to get back out there with the guys. It was a pretty high pace out there, those games are fun and those are the ones you want to be in. It was like a playoff game out there and it's good to get those games like that.

"You can definitely feel it in the room, the guys are learning how to win and we're coming together as a group," Benn continued. "They were playing great the last few games before I came back and I thought we were playing pretty good again tonight."

There was a bit of a worry (although perhaps misplaced) that Benn's return would disrupt a system that had been working incredibly well the past four games. It was apparent, however, that Benn's presence is incredibly important as the Stars obviously had more offensive firepower and jump than we've seen in more than two months.

"That really helps our team to get him back, we know how good he is, and it's nice of him to get the first one of the game," said Loui Eriksson. "He was playing good and we definitely need him here and it's a big boost for our team having him back."

The revised strategy employed by Glen Gulutzan and his coaches has paid off, freeing up Loui Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro to focus on offense and allowing Jamie Benn and Steve Ott to be a very effective two-way line. The presence of Benn on the second line was immediately apparent, as he scored the first goal of the game off another great play by Steve Ott.

With Gulutzan's new line combinations and game strategy, the Malkin and Neal line was kept under wraps as much as could be expected. Once again, Ryan Garbutt, Tom Wandell and Tomas Vincour all provided a big impact in limited time -- creating a turning point in the game with their hard forecheck and offensive pressure in the second period.

For the first time all season it seems the Stars have finally found the defensive and offensive balance they've needed and the return of Jamie Benn only adds to that depth. With Garbutt providing some incredible energy and offensive pressure, perfectly enhanced by Vincour's play, the Stars have four impressive lines that can change the tone of the game at any time.

Unfortunately, the national focus on this game wasn't on the incredible performance by both teams but on the injury to Kris Letang after an Eric Nystrom hit. Much debate has already been waged about the hit but for Nystrom, it was a clean hit through and through.

"I'm coming in on the forecheck, I am going in to play the man and he is reaching in for the puck. I didn't even touch his head, I hit him shoulder-to-shoulder," Nystrom. "I had four minor penalties coming into this game, I am not a headhunter."

Nystrom was hit with a roughing penalty, which was a bit confusing to some. It's apparent that the refs felt some penalty was needed because of the injury, although Nystrom says it was just an unfortunate result of a normal hit.

"At the speed of the game, the ref just has to make a call there," Nystrom said. "He saw the guy reach at the last second and I can't stop there. I kept my arms down and I didn't even make contact with his head. I never want to see a guy get hurt."

We'll find out later today whether the NHL and Brenden Shanahan agree. For now, the Stars are heading to Western Canada playing their most impressive hockey of the season. All of this good will and optimism is great to see but for a team like the Stars fighting for their lives in the playoff race all that matters is the next game and the next two points that are on the line.

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