One of the cliches you'll hear a lot around playoff time is about the regular season being no longer relevant . There's some truth in that, although the Dallas Stars seem to be taking it to extremes these days.
They're going home tonight after beating the San Jose Sharks 5-2 twith four goals in the third period. They'll be taking a 2-0 lead in Western semifinal with them, a commanding position that comes on the heels of the Stars upsetting the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks in the first round. And yet it is all a little surprising considering the Stars might not have made the playoffs had the regular season lasted another 10 days or so.
Dallas was falling that fast over the last month. The Stars had a tumultuous start to the season that saw GM Doug Armstrong fired, but they regrouped and were challenging for the Pacific Division crown for much of it, and looked like a serious Stanley Cup threat when it traded for Brad Richards at the deadline. But the Stars couldn't do anything right as they staggered through the month of March and arrived at the playoffs looking vulnerable and without their top two defenseman.
Instead, they've taken a big step toward getting to the Western Conference Finals with their start in San Jose, where they have had an inordinate amount of success lately by going 8-0-1 in their last nine games there. Dallas beat Anaheim in the first round by using speed and transitions to frustrate the Ducks into taking penalties, and the Stars power play was deadly enough to make the difference in that series. They haven't had as many man advantage opportunities against the Sharks, but Dallas has played smart and patient road hockey and has taken advantage of a Sharks team that seems unable to sustain its level of intensity for extended periods.
The Stars are winning games because they are working for it and getting great efforts from veteran Mike Modano, who feeds off the Sharks more than anyone on his team, Marty Turco, Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow among others. But as much as anything, Dallas has been opportunistic in these playoffs, although not to the extent it was when Richards scored early in the third period tonight on a bad turnover by San Jose's Joe Pavelski.
avelski wiped out in his own end and Richards pounced on the loose puck before getting off a quick shot against Evgeni Nabokov, who wasn't set properly. That tied the game less than a minute into the third period, and the Stars used that momentum changer to its max, charging at the Sharks and scoring three more goals to run away the game. In the process they gave the perennially underachieving Sharks cause to wonder if they will come back to their building this season.
The good news for the Sharks is that they were the league's best road team this season. The bad news is that Dallas is the better team in this series.
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