It's now time to start considering the Dallas Stars as a legitimate contender in the Western Conference. Not a championship contender, not by a long shot, but at the very least a contender to lock down a spot in the 2012 NHL Playoffs. Their position is precarious and we'll not go so far as to say it's a lock that the Stars make the postseason but with each passing game the Stars see their chances rise and rise.
With the 5-2 in Vancouver on Tuesday night the Stars took control of the Pacific Division, with Phoenix and San Jose both losing. Los Angeles remains in the hunt as well and just three points separate all four teams for the division lead, but the Stars took a big step forward by taking advantage of a prime situation on a busy night in the NHL.
We've discussed how this latest run mirrors what happened last season around this time and how the Stars would see it all fall apart with a free fall in March. What is different this season is we are seeing a hunger in this Dallas Stars team that hasn't been present since 2008, a drive for the playoffs that is evident in each passing game. With the win in Vancouver the Stars proved once more that as a complete team effort, they can take on any team in the NHL.
"You can't ask for more. Our guys battled hard tonight at the end of a road trip," said coach Glen Gulutzan. "We got six points out of this thing that we desperately needed. We've just got to keep moving forward and stay in the grind."
The Stars embarked on this Western Canadian road trip with questions unanswered, despite the tremendous effort against Pittsburgh at home in Dallas. Would the Stars be able to keep the streak moving forward and if they did stumble, would the Stars pick it up quickly or would they start to spiral out of control like we've seen in the past?
In Calgary and Edmonton the Stars failed to play their best hockey and despite some uninspired effort managed to walk away with four points. The shaky games left some angst about how the game in Vancouver would turn out, especially considering how the Stars had struggled in Vancouver over the past few seasons. If the Stars were able to turn it back on and get another big win on the road, the progression of this team from bubble team to legitimate playoff contenders would be accelerated tremendously.
Some eyebrows were raised when the Stars announced that Richard Bachman would get the start in Vancouver, his first time playing in a Canadian city. With the Stars looking at a couple of big division games this weekend, it made sense to give Kari Lehtonen a rest and see just how Bachman would perform under tremendous pressure. Just like he did in Chicago, Bachman proved that was more than up to the task against one of the top teams in the NHL.
"I actually felt some jitters," said Bachman. "It was the first NHL game I've started in Canada and the atmosphere was amazing. So, starting off with a penalty shot is never what you want to see. Once that was done it helped settle me in and after that first period I really got comfortable."
Bachman was tested early with a penalty shot in the first minute of the game and was able, once again, to keep the Stars in the game with several big saves in the first period. After a relatively soft goal was allowed in the second period, Bachman showed his poise once more by settling down and getting the big win -- stopping 29-of-31 on the road against a very good Vancouver team.
It wasn't all Bachman, however, as the Stars used another complete team effort to stifle the Canucks as the game progressed and eventually broke it wide open in the third period. The top two lines of the Stars put constant pressure on the Vancouver defense and the aggressive play by the Stars at their own blue line took advantage of the defensive miscues by the Canucks, leading to several odd-man rushes as the game progressed.
Mike Ribiero, who now has 26 points in his past 22 games, scored his first of two goals in the second period when he and Loui Eriksson created a turnover at the blue line and into the neutral zone. Ribeiro stared down Roberto Luongo and then roofed the puck perfectly over his shoulder.
"We'll take that," Ribeiro. "They are a team that likes to pinch and we were able to win those battles and create a two-on-one there."
The recent scoring outburst by Ribeiro and the top line has resulted from a confidence we hadn't seen from the center the first half of the season. While Ribeiro is still looking to make those big passes he's known for, the willingness to actually put the puck on net is paying off in spades. Ribeiro never hesitated on shooting during that two-on-one and knew exactly where he was going to place it.
The Stars also received a goal from Loui Eriksson on the power play as the special teams for the Stars continues to be a major reason for the recent success of this team. The penalty kill was once again perfect and while the power play is not looking overtly dangerous at times, the players are at least finding ways to be productive with the extra man.
"We just stuck with our game plan and kept pushing forward," said Ribeiro. "Special teams did their job, the goaltending was good and we kept it simple. ... It's a team concept right now and everyone is doing the right thing. We won a lot of battles along the boards. If you keep teams to two or three goals your chances of winning increases, and we've been playing well defensively."
The defensive play of the Stars cannot be overstated enough as once again we're seeing a team that has bought into the system that Gulutzan is selling. Three weeks ago it seems a switch was flipped where the Stars suddenly discovered how to be successful while focusing on defensive responsibility yet maintaining the offensive aggressiveness many of these players enjoy.
The Stars have become adept at not allowing much space through the neutral zone and across their blue and the backchecking prowess the Stars now show have prevented numerous scoring chances against potent offenses during this streak. This has led to a transition game that has improved dramatically from the first three months of the season, bolstered by the incredible play of the top two centers on the team.
Jamie Benn, playing in his fourth game back after his thigh injury, finally looked comfortable and up to speed. His line created numerous scoring chances and while Benn missed on several prime opportunities to score early finally was able to bury the puck in the third period. For Benn and linemates Steve Ott and Adam Burish, persistence paid off as instead of allowing frustration to overcome them they keep pressuring the Canucks, until the eventual game-winning goal was scored.
Benn's sixth game-winning goal this season leads the Stars and is the most for the team since Niklas Hagman had eight in 2007-08. Benn has had a rough season as he fights for consistency around several unfortunate injuries but he's showing that when the Stars need a big goal, he's more than capable of stepping up and doing what is needed.
"You definitely want to get as many points as you can, and we got them all on this trip," said Benn. "We're just playing a solid team game and everybody is buying in. That's what you need at a time like this."
The message from the players after this game was the same: solid team effort, time to focus on the next game. The Stars are showing all the emotion on the ice of a team that knows it's found something potentially special but at the same time the players understand there is still a lot of work to be done.
With San Jose coming to town on Thursday the Stars face yet another hurdle in their quest for the postseason, a team that potentially poses a tremendous challenge. After the past eight games, however, perhaps that feeling of impending doom will start to fade.
The Stars deserve to see a rowdy and enthusiastic crowd as they return home as they've done their part -- now it's time to do ours.