Stars following path blazed by Rangers

Dallas Stars coach Marc Crawford got caught up in Texas Rangers fever late this summer. He wasn't throwing out claws and antlers to folks in the street, but he did attend a few games and watched as many playoff games as he could in between coaching his hockey team.

"They had a memorable run and had fun doing it," Crawford said. "I think our entire team took notice of that. We'd like to get there, but that's a long way away."

The similarities start with ownership, as both have had to deal with limited financial resources and a cloud of uncertainty as to who might eventually buy the teams. But it's much more than that. Both general managers went to Cornell, had to remake their clubs through trades, scouting and development and on a tight budget. And they constructed teams built on chemistry and young talent supported by veteran leadership.

Of course, the Texas Rangers made it to the World Series. The Stars haven't even reached the halfway point of their season.

"It's probably natural to think that because both teams were under the same umbrella," Nieuwendyk said. "But we can't lose sight of what's in front of us. Three losses and you're back to 10th [in the Western Conference]. This race isn't going anywhere."

No, it's not. But instead of skating around the bottom of the conference desperately trying to grab a playoff spot like they were a season ago, the Stars are perched at the top of the Pacific Division, playing like true contenders.

And like the Rangers, a long sustained run of success early in the season has propelled them to the division lead. The Stars are 11-2-2 in the past 15 games, a streak that started in November and has carried over into December. It was a huge June that vaulted the Rangers to the top of the AL West, a spot they never relinquished.

"I know from my perspective in the game of hockey, half the battle is the guys coming together as a team and working hard for one another," Nieuwendyk said. "The players deserve credit for that. There's no magic potion we've thrown at them."

Stars captain Brenden Morrow sees a tight group.

"You don't want to let the other guy down," Morrow said. "The camaraderie is really good, and everyone is on the same page."

Morrow is the Michael Young of this Stars team. He came through the Dallas system, arriving to the NHL just in time to taste a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, but just after the organization won it all in 1999. Like Young, Morrow is a quiet leader. But he's shown a tough streak that has his teammates willing to do nearly anything for him. The latest example: He broke his nose in San Jose last week and, with blood streaming down his face, headed to the dressing room. He was back before the game ended, helping his team pull out a come-from-behind shootout victory. He had surgery the next day and, naturally, scored two goals just days later.

If Morrow is the Stars' version of Young, then goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft constitute a big part of the pitching staff.

Goaltending in hockey is like pitching in baseball: It can hide a lot of offensive flaws and pull out some games for you. And like baseball, so often it's about the timing of the big save. The Rangers' pitchers did a solid job of getting out of jams late in close games. Lehtonen and Raycroft have done the same, turning back the opponent in the third period of a close game to preserve a victory.

"I think the goaltending has allowed us to have a sense of confidence in one another," Nieuwendyk said.

In other words, the offense is willing to take some more risks and try to make a play knowing the goalie (with help from his defensemen) will clean up a mess on the other end.

That didn't happen often enough with Marty Turco in net. And it was a big reason Nieuwendyk made the decision to let him go just two years after he helped lead the team to the Western Conference finals.

But goaltending alone won't win games. It takes timely goals, and the Stars are getting those, too. Crawford's high-octane system has taken hold within the group. Associate coach Willie Desjardins, hired before the season, has helped refine that system. That's a lot like what hitting coach Clint Hurdle did for the Rangers.

Crawford utilized his first season to help the younger players understand what he wanted and what it would take to get it done. That's not unlike Rangers manager Ron Washington, who stressed the fundamentals and a versatile offense to a club that was used to simply bashing the ball all over the place and hoping that would be enough. It was a big change for the organization, and it took time for the players to execute it.

The Stars were long known for gritty, defensive play. They would outwork you for 60 minutes, bottle up the opponent and win games, 2-1. But they weren't the type of team that could score with consistency. This bunch can. And they've done it without giving up on the defensive end, either. It has allowed them to become a more balanced group that can win in a variety of ways.

If you're a Rangers fan, that sounds familiar, doesn't it?

So does the Stars' resilient character, a hallmark of the Rangers' 2010 season.

These Stars don't give up. They fell behind 2-0 to the Red Wings in Joe Louis Arena on Sunday and looked a bit tired. That was understandable given that it was the team's third game in four days. But they tapped into their energy reserves and mounted a comeback, eventually winning the game in overtime. It wasn't the first time they've done that this season, either.

So is there a Cliff Lee on the Stars? Brad Richards seems suited for that role. He leads the team in goals and assists and has made everyone around him better. But because of the Stars' financial struggles, it's up in the air whether Richards will re-sign with Dallas after this season. If the Stars were playing like the Mariners did in 2010, trading Richards before the February trade deadline wouldn't be a difficult decision. However, if Dallas remains near the top of the conference, Richards could be a critical component to a playoff run, like Lee was for the Rangers.

Speaking of the financial struggles, Nieuwendyk has found a way to construct a team that wins games despite a limited payroll. He did it in the Daniels mold, with some shrewd trades (see Lehtonen), good free-agent signings (Adam Burish, Raycroft), focusing on the draft and development and allowing young players to take on more responsibility and show what they can do. The result is a fun team that really is in the Nieuwendyk mold: a professional group that is difficult to play against.

"The one thing about the Rangers was that you could see how much fun they were having," said forward Toby Petersen, a big Minnesota Twins fan. "Hockey is an intense game, but we do have fun. We have guys dishing it out with each other in the dressing room and laughing. Winning certainly helps that, but this team genuinely likes each other."

All of this similarity doesn't mean the Stars will enjoy a playoff run like that of the Rangers', of course. But they certainly have the ingredients to make things fun just around the time the Rangers will kick off their 2011 season.

"If we do what they did, that would be a good way to end things," Morrow said. "But it's still December. We have to focus on what we're doing right and keep playing that way. You have to get in the dance and see what happens. That's our goal."

Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.