Stars ignore critics in fight to win West

VANCOUVER -- Joe Nieuwendyk's voice is barely audible above all the hooting and hollering down on the ice during his team's morning skate Monday.

The timing is perfect, too. The Dallas Stars GM, sitting 30 rows up at Rogers Arena, was just beginning to explain to ESPN.com why his club has had such a surprisingly successful season when the players start yucking it up below him.

"I think the biggest difference is what you're seeing out there," Nieuwendyk said, pointing to the ice. "A group of guys that enjoy being around each other and playing hard for each other. We have talent and good goaltending, we have skill, but over half the battle is what you're seeing out here. These guys are having fun and don't want to let each other down. I think that's been probably our biggest thing."

Spend a few days with the Stars and you get the sense these players have been together for a decade.

"This is the closest locker room I've ever been part of. It's fun," leading scorer Brad Richards told ESPN.com.

Take this past weekend. The Stars had the unusual scheduling quirk of arriving in Vancouver on Friday night and not having to play until Monday. A players' dream and a coach's nightmare to have all that time off in such a great city. And it showed in Monday night's 7-1 loss to the Canucks.

Still, the time off was representative of how tight this team has become this season.

"Guys love being together," said Stars captain Brenden Morrow. "We had an off-day here and other than one or two guys who had family here, everyone was together. We haven't seen that too often in the past. It's pretty special."

It's a young team, younger than the Stars have had in a very long time. Which is why Nieuwendyk, one of the bright, young hires in the NHL, made the painstaking decision of parting ways with both Mike Modano and Marty Turco in the offseason.

Neither were easy choices, and not popular with all Stars fans, especially cutting ties with the longtime face of the franchise in Modano. But Nieuwendyk sensed his young core needed room to breathe and grow.

"No question," said Nieuwendyk. "And believe me, I don't have a bad word to say about either one of those guys. In fact, in Mike's case he deserves a statue in front of the arena. But sometimes it's time to make adjustments and even as painful as it is with players that have been with us for a long time, it's allowed these young guys to really have a voice. I think everybody always associated the Stars with Mike Modano. And that was great for so many years. But this is a new, young, fresh-looking team that's cutting its own path."

It's a team that's making a lot of pundits look foolish, too. You won't find anyone who picked the Stars last September to win the deeply talented Pacific Division. Not even the team's own GM.

"I probably wouldn't have thought we would have been here," Nieuwendyk said. "But funny things happen when you get this in place, where guys play hard for each other. You don't have to have the most talented team or the highest-priced team. There's a belief that's grown over the course of the year."

That confidence began to grow early in the season because of goalie Kari Lehtonen. Nieuwendyk's gamble, acquired late last season, is making him look good.

"Kari played pretty good the first 9-10 games of this season, that allowed us to get our feet underneath us," said coach Marc Crawford. "Our team gained a lot of confidence with the wins. And the biggest factor in those wins was Kari's goaltending. It allows you to build some confidence."

Richards remembers the opening of the season in New Jersey and Long Island when his team was outshot 77-50 but won both encounters.

"We were trying to find our way as a team," said Richards. "I remember the first two games, we got peppered. Kari stands on his head and suddenly we're 2-0 instead of 0-2. We got to 4-0-0 and you could see the confidence of the group. We just started riding that."

Lehtonen and backup Andrew Raycroft have both been solid, and that's given the blue-line corps room to maneuver. If there was indeed an Achilles Heel perceived by most before the season, it was the group of defensemen on this club.

But led by hard-nosed Stephane Robidas and the smooth-skating Trevor Daley, the group has excelled, forming a mobile unit that helps key the Stars' transition game.

"When you get saves that makes everyone else better around you," said Nieuwendyk. "But I tell you, I look around the league, I'll put our group of seven D-men up against a lot of teams'. They're a hard-working group with different elements."

It's also a motivated group with a chip on its collective shoulder.

"When you talk to hockey people, some of them still don't think we're a good group," said Robidas, one of the toughest players in the league. "We don't have a big star on D. We don't have a Lidstrom, or a Duncan Keith; we're not that type of team. We rely on seven D-men. When everyone kind of thinks you're not good enough, you want to prove people wrong. And really, that's not just our mentality as D-men but the whole team."

Ugly losses Friday in Calgary and Monday in Vancouver might raise eyebrows for people who still don't believe this team is for real. The Stars no longer worry about defending their legitimacy to critics. They've got bigger goals than that.

"We have the confidence now that we believe we should be there and we want to challenge for the top in the West," said Richards.

We've gotten this far in this story and not really touched on Richards, the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner who is having a monster year. One of the league's premier playmakers, he reminded of his all-world talent again Monday night when he faked a shot, froze Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo and deftly dropped a backhand into the open side. Marvelous.

Richards can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"I've said from the beginning, we want to sign Brad Richards," said Nieuwendyk. "I think Brad Richards is good for the Dallas Stars and the Dallas Stars are good for Brad Richards. We want to sign him."

Unlike Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta last season, the Richards situation has not proved a distraction to this point. The GM and the player have kept the lines of communication open and understand the factors at play.

It all sounds like a situation that will iron itself out after the season, whether that means Richards stays or goes. In the meantime, the star center and the GM hope for a long playoff run.

"I know one thing: It's fun coming to the rink every day," said Nieuwendyk.