For a team with a playoff dry spell rivaling the Whigs of the American political experience, the Dallas Stars enter the second season as both postseason neophytes, Central Division champions and Western Conference front-runners.
It’s not necessarily the status of having home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, but how they earned it that has given the Stars dual identities.
While Washington wrapped up the Eastern Conference weeks ago, the Stars toiled in meaningful games in playoff atmospheres all the way down to regular-season game No. 82.
Dallas closed the season winning nine of its last 11 games.
“These are the perfect games for this team right now, the ones you want to play to prepare for the playoffs,” said left winger Jamie Benn, the team’s captain who became the first Stars player to score 40 or more goals in a season since Mike Modano in 1993-94. “Teams aren’t giving up as many goals anymore, especially down the stretch, playing tighter defense. Those are the games we need to learn to play going into the playoffs.”
The Stars open the playoffs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday against Minnesota at American Airlines Center.
The playoff berth marks the Stars’ second since the 2007-08 season. In 2014, Dallas fell in six games to Anaheim in the first round.
Injuries down the stretch have given the organization a chance to show its depth and provide young players an opportunity to get their feet wet in crunch time.
Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, John Klingberg and Jason Demers all missed games because of injuries down the stretch. Stephen Johns, Radek Faksa and Brett Ritchie were all recalled from the minors and played well, forcing tough decisions on coach Lindy Ruff, who called that problem “welcome.”
Seguin, who missed 10 regular-season games with a cut Achilles, is available again, but he might not suit up. He practiced on the regular lines Wednesday.
The Stars are as prolific offensively as anyone in the league, leading all teams with 265 goals for an average of 3.23 goals a game. The league average is 2.67 goals a game.
The Stars feature a unique dynamic with nine forwards capable of scoring.
“It’s nice to have a little bit of confidence,” said center Vernon Fiddler, who scored 12 goals this season, one shy of his career high. “There’s no switch. You have to earn what you get.
“If you play the right way, you’re going to be successful because we have lots of talented guys who can score.”
On the other hand, none of the top Stanley Cup hopefuls has been as giving as the Stars’ 228 goals against.
However, defense and goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have been good in the final portion of the season, averaging two goals per game down the stretch.
“It’s a group effort. It starts with our goalies,” Benn said. “We’re playing with a pretty good group of five committed to playing good defense. If you do that it turns into good offense.”
Of the goaltending, Ruff called the position “in a great spot.”
“I was hoping for both to play well and both have been real good for a couple of weeks now,” Ruff said.
Whom to play in goal is another welcome problem heading into the part of season where goaltending is essential.
Battling down the stretch turned out to be a welcome problem, too, for a team with no playoff experience. The past three weeks gave the Stars a chance to develop playoff “habits,” as Fiddler called it.
“It doesn’t matter who you play, you’re still playing for something,” Fiddler said of the final part of the season. “We had to keep pace with everybody else because if you didn’t you could find yourself going down real quick. We just wanted to keep getting better and better every 20 minutes.”
Stars vs. Wild
First round (Best-of-seven)
Thursday: at Dallas, 8:30 p.m., NBCSN, FSSW
Saturday: at Dallas, 7 p.m., NBCSN, FSSW
Monday: at Minnesota, 7:30 p.m., CNBC, FSSW
April 20: at Minnesota, 8:30 p.m., NBCSN, FSSW
April 22: at Dallas, TBD*, FSSW
April 24: at Minnesota, TBD*, FSSW
April 26: at Dallas, TBD*, FSSW