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Stars look to make strong push in second half

The Dallas Stars hit the midpoint of the season with Tuesday’s game in Anaheim, and despite the loss to the Ducks, they believe they are in a pretty good spot.

“I think at the midway point we are pretty much where we should be with the injuries and everything with our goalie and four D that have gone down,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan.

At the halfway point of the season the Stars find themselves right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. It was expected to be tight and it is. Four points separate sixth place from tenth. The Stars, 23-17-1 (47 points) through 41 games, are ninth as far as points and are eighth as far as points percentage.

The Stars have overcome losing goaltender Kari Lehtonen for 12 games and defensemen Alex Goligoski, Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley and Sheldon Souray with injuries over the first half of the season. They lost defenseman Mark Fistric for three games to a suspension and rookie blueliner Philip Larsen is still on the shelf with concussion-like symptoms. Captain Brenden Morrow and Adam Burish missed extensive time with injuries as well.

"It’s gone like any other season, lots of ups and downs, battling through adversity and injuries,” said Morrow. “We’re in a good position now, but we’ve got to keep pushing forward.”

The Stars, who got off to an 11-3-0 start to the season, have had their ups and downs since. They’ve gone 12-14-1 over last the 27 games, including a five-game losing streak in mid-November. They are 8-8-0 over their last 16 games.

“We obviously got off to a great start. We’ve had a few injuries, nothing serious thankfully,” said Goligoski. “But we slipped there a little bit and then we were kind of win one, lose one a little bit. The last little while here, I think everyone’s really focused in and trying to get a little something going, get a little run going.”

The Stars would like to put a nice run together heading into the All-Star break to put themselves in a good position. That’s because coming out of the break the Stars will be facing a rough schedule in February.

“We’d like to collect as many points as we can because we’re going to be in a big grind in February,” Morrow said. “I don’t know how many games we play, but I looked at the schedule and it’s pretty full. We’ve got to just keep plugging away.”

During February the Stars will play 16 games over 29 days, including four back-to-back sets. Several those games will be against teams they are battling for a playoff spot in the West.

“I think our best hockey has to come in February,” said Gulutzan. “The games 40-60 are the games we have to be concentrating on and probably at our best. This run up until the All-Star break and after that are very important for us.”

As the Stars move onto the second half of the season they see a lot of positives, improvements in key areas as the first half moved along. Over the first quarter of the season the Stars were getting outshot by a 34-27 margin, but over the last 22 games they’ve been outshooting their opponents on average. The number of penalties they are taking per game has dropped. In the first 20 games they were shorthanded an average of five times per game. Over the last 21 games that number has dropped to below three per game.

“We’re outshooting teams, which is a change. We’re a lot more disciplined than we were the first part of the season,” said Gulutzan. “We’re getting better as a group, so our second half we have to be a little bit better than we were in this first half.”

Forward Steve Ott believes the team has been building over the course of the first half of the season, learning and implementing Gulutzan’s system. Wins over teams like Boston and the New York Rangers have shown that the Stars can play with the top teams in the league.

“Our structure is starting to show through. I think we’ve shown we can play with anybody in the league, and we can beat anybody in the league,” Ott said. “Knowing that we have that foundation, I think you can say, that we are building, I think that is the biggest difference than before. Our foundation and structure have been solid. It’s going to make a difference, hopefully, come the second half of the season because of the extra work we’ve put in early.”

That structure, Ott said, should put the Stars in a better position than recent seasons, when they faded over the second half and down the stretch and ended up missing the postseason.

“It’s the consistency that we need to keep finding and putting wins together in a row,” said Ott. “Over the next 41 games the power play is going to have to pick up slack, the intensity is going to ramp up to the next gear and all of us have to ready for that, but we have to stay within structure. Whoever plays that best structure usually comes out on top.”