<
>

Playoffs key step for young Stars

FRISCO, Texas -- Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill believes firmly in living in reality. He doesn't try to convince anyone that his team is built to win the Stanley Cup. Don't get the wrong idea: The Stars' goal, like everyone in the playoffs, is to hoist, arguably, the most famous trophy in sports.

But by simply making it, Nill, coach Lindy Ruff and the organization has achieved one of the major goals for this season. Nill talked about it at the preseason unveiling of the team's new uniforms, appropriately named "Victory Green." He's discussed it as the season has progressed, never backing away from the notion that making the playoffs was attainable and a critical first step in skating back to contending status.

"This team needed this," Nill said, a day after the team clinched its first playoff berth in six years by beating St. Louis. Dallas will take on Anaheim in the first-round series, which begins Wednesday. "It's very important. Our players need to experience what it's like to play in that atmosphere. It's one step in the process. We still have work to do, but we needed to take this step."

A lot has happened since the Stars were last in the playoffs, a Western Conference finals appearance in 2008. Barack Obama was elected president. The Stars' American Airlines Center roommates, the Dallas Mavericks, won the NBA title. The Texas Rangers went to consecutive World Series. Heck, the Dallas Cowboys even won a playoff game since the last postseason berth for the Stars.

To get the Stars back to the postseason, Nill arrived in the summer and made some changes. One of his first decisions: hiring Ruff to replace Glen Gulutzan as coach.

Nill wanted a veteran coach and someone with a track record of playoff success to help lead the team. Ruff has certainly done those things.

Nill then made the trade of the season and one that a few years from now could become the key move in bringing the Stanley Cup to Dallas for a second time. Nill needed a center and Boston was willing to part with uber-talented Tyler Seguin. The 21-year-old came with some risk in that he was a raw talent still trying to mature both on and off the ice. And Nill had to part with Loui Eriksson, a solid player for years in Dallas.

But the trade gave Dallas a center it needed and a player who knows how to create scoring chances. Seguin led the team in goals and assists this season, teaming up with Jamie Benn to form a top line that gives opposing coaches and players fits.

Seguin also has playoff experience and won a Cup, though not as one of the critical offensive cogs on a team, as he is in Dallas. The Stars have a few veterans with Cup experience, but the reality -- there's that word again -- is that this is a young team with a core that is still developing. So these playoffs are about them.

If the Stars are to get back to being an annual Cup contender, like they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that young group must grow together. And part of that growth is playing under playoff pressure.

"You have to lose to learn how to win," Nill said. "This team has done that this year. They seem to like challenges. Now they get to learn about the playoffs."

Just as the season was underway, Nill said the organization was two years away from becoming Stanley Cup contenders. But for that timetable to hold, they had to make the postseason. Now they've got a chance to speed up that timeline if they can upset the top-seeded Ducks and go on an unlikely playoff run.

It isn't out of the realm of possibility. These Stars have gained a reputation of being difficult to play against. They control the puck, they use their speed to outmaneuver teams, and they attack the net. And they have goalie Kari Lehtonen, who has gained confidence this season in helping the team make the playoffs.

"It's special, but the work continues," Lehtonen told reporters after the Stars clinched. "We need to keep going. We need to not think about what happened in the past, but look to the future."

In hockey, unlike any other sport, that kind of playoff push is possible if your goalie gets hot. Lehtonen must handle the pressure, make the critical saves and clean up the messes that an inconsistent defensive corps has produced at times this season.

"Your goalie can carry you and Kari has played well," Nill said. "We talked before the season about his conditioning and lasting a whole season and making big saves. He's now been in the Olympics and has been in some tough games and come through. He's climbed all of that. Our team knows that they've got a chance to win when he's out there. It gives them confidence."

Lehtonen has just two playoff games on his resume and they weren't good ones. He allowed 11 goals in 118 minutes as the Atlanta Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers in the first round in 2006-07.

This is Lehtonen's chance at redemption.

But no matter what kind of playoff run the Stars have, just getting to the postseason is a critical step for this team. Ask the 1996-97 Stars squad. It was the first full season under Ken Hitchcock and they lost to the Edmonton Oilers in the first round. But for players like Jamie Langenbrunner, Richard Matvichuk, Jere Lehtinen, Mike Modano and Darryl Sydor, it was valuable experience that helped them build the foundation to winning a Stanley Cup two years later.

This current Stars group has 12 players making their first playoff appearance Wednesday night. A large part of that dozen, including Benn, Valeri Nichushkin, Antoine Roussel, Alex Chiasson and others, will be here in a few years, when Nill expects the Stars to be contending for Cups on an annual basis.

This is the time to figure out what it takes to win playoff games and be successful when the pressure is at its highest.

"They've jumped one hurdle in making it," Nill said. "Now they get a chance at another."

Just like Nill planned seven months ago.