2012 NHL Playoffs: Just How Optimistic Should Dallas Stars Fans Be?

CALGARY, CANADA - MARCH 4: Loui Eriksson #21 and Stephane Robidas #3 of the Dallas Stars celebrate Eriksson's short handed goal against the Calgary Fl;ames in second period NHL action on March 4, 2012 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Mike Ridewood/Getty Images)

The remarkable turnaround by the Dallas Stars over the past three weeks has been well documented at this point as we continue to break down just why the Stars are suddenly playing so well and more importantly, so consistently. 9-0-1 in their past ten games, the Stars have vaulted to the top of the Pacific Division due to a big run at the exact right time as San Jose and Phoenix both slid in the standings due to struggles of their own.

With just 13 games remaining this season and the Stars not only maintaining their lead in the Pacific but actually building that lead over the weekend, suddenly thoughts of the playoffs have actually started to enter into the conversation in Dallas for the first time in nearly four years. Very soon the Dallas Stars will start the push to sell playoff tickets by making the announcement to season ticket holders and not long after that tickets will be made available to the public.

The atmosphere at home games the past two weeks is suddenly much different than what we've experienced all season long. Sold out crowds are now rocking the AAC with the playoffs on the minds of all Stars fans and that intensity being used to help fuel the home team when they need it most. The players admitted that after San Jose scored with 3:30 remaining in regulation on Thursday, the support from the home crowd helped boost the team in the final minutes leading up to the tying goal.

This complete change in atmosphere and optimism is nearly the exact opposite than what we were experiencing just three weeks ago after the loss to the Nashville Predators. The Stars had been playing well but bad luck and turnovers seemed to have doomed the season and, perhaps prematurely, Stars fans and media began to look ahead to the impending rebuild over the summer.

Just ten games later, feelings have completely changed. Just how optimistic should Dallas Stars fans now be and is there still room for concern? Let's take a look after the jump...

On February 19, after a tough loss on the road to the Nashville Predators, the chances of the Dallas Stars making the playoffs sat at around 18%. The Stars were 11th in the conference and had at a recent point been a full ten points back of San Jose in the Pacific Division. There was talk about a fire sale for the Stars and debate over the value of trading players like Steve Ott, Mike Ribeiro and Sheldon Souray and what direction the Stars should take in their rebuild.

Now, ten games later in which the Stars have gone 9-0-1 and beaten Vancouver twice, beaten Calgary on the road, Chicago on the road and San Jose at home, the Stars have around a 90% chance at making the postseason. Not only do the Stars suddenly have a 90% shot at the playoffs but they suddenly control their own destiny in the fight for the Pacific Division crown.

Imagine that. Just weeks after debate raged about how many players the Stars should trade off there's a very good possibility that this team could win the Pacific Division. It's astoundingly remarkable that this is even possible and it's proof of just how effective a big run can be at the perfect point in the season. This 9-0-1 run has coincided with an incredible collapse by the San Jose Sharks and a smaller collapse by the Phoenix Coyotes.

It's been a run of very good luck and very good, consistent play by the Stars who continue to find ways to win. The question, of course, now becomes just how optimistic Stars fans can be about the possibilities of making actually making the playoffs.

It's understandable that fans should feel wary of becoming too optimistic about the postseason, especially after three straight seasons where late-season collapses ended any hopes of the Stars making the playoffs. This season the Stars followed the opposite formula, where mid-season struggles seemed to end any hopes of the playoffs before we could really get pumped up for the possibility.

Then you consider the slide by the Sharks and the Coyotes over the past month and it's easy to see just how quickly it can all far apart. The Sharks were sitting at 100% playoff probability midway through February and have collapsed in historic fashion and now sit at just under a 60% chance at the playoffs and will likely not win the division.

The Coyotes didn't lose a game in the entire month of February and raised their probability from 5% to 95% in just under 30 days. Since that time they've fallen all the way back down to 60% and have struggled with consistency after a magical month where it seemed it was impossible for the Coyotes to actually lose.

When you consider these facts it's tough to deny fans the right to feel wary of getting too worked up for the actual postseason. Until that day comes that the Stars mathematically lock down a playoff spot, I can see how there are fans that will refuse to even acknowledge the possibility of the postseason. After all, this is the best way of protecting ourselves from what some believe to be the inevitable letdown.

Yet it's tough to deny that this Dallas Stars team, the team that has discovered just how important a complete team effort can be, is different than the ones that have let fans down in the past. The Stars acknowledge they are from a point where a letdown can't be tolerated and their position in the standings is precarious at best; every player we talked to over the weekend talked about how constant improvement is needed and how any let down can result in collapse exactly like we've seen from San Jose and Phoenix.

The Stars are winning not because of luck and not just because of tremendous goaltending; it's been a combination of coaching strategy, effort, execution, sharp and smart play and...excellent goaltending.

Each game has been different during this streak and each game the Stars have found a different way to win. The play of the top line of Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson and Michael Ryder has propelled the Stars forward along with the continued tremendous play of Tom Wandell and Tomas Vincour on the fourth line. With the Stars getting a boost by the return of Brenden Morrow to the second line, it's tough to count this team out -- especially with all four lines able to contribute in each and every game.

Put aside the probability numbers and the statistics the Stars have put together over the past three weeks for a moment. Think of how the Stars are playing as a team, how they've bought into the system that Glen Gulutzan is now putting in place -- a simplified approach that has cut down on the chances for mistakes and a system that frustrates the opposition. The Stars now talk about keeping it simple and not getting too fancy, an acknowledgement that the approach at the start of the season was far from what was good for the team.

This isn't the same team that followed up good runs this season with mini-collapses of their own -- the collapses that lead to worry that could happen down the stretch for the Stars and all this talk about the playoffs could be for naught. Instead, this is a different Stars team from the one that struggled in November, one that is mentally prepared to not allow a tough loss to escalate into a series of losses that negates this latest streak.

The Stars discovered how to win and how to play as a complete team at the perfect time this season. The 9-0-1 streak has built a buffer of sorts and while collapses are always possible, with just 13 games remaining and a sizable lead over teams in 7th and 8th in the conference, the Stars would have to find a way to completely undo all of what has been built over the past three weeks.

Should Stars fans be wary? Perhaps. At the same time, with each passing win and each day the probability increases, our optimism about the NHL playoffs grows. Just 13 games remain in this season and at some point, we can finally allow ourselves to look ahead to the postseason -- something no one thought possible just three weeks ago.

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