Stars' last West Coast swing proves to be turning point
February 12, 2004
By J. Douglas Foster
As the Stars prepare for their upcoming trip through Phoenix, Anaheim and Los Angeles, it's almost impossible not to look back on the last time they traveled through each of these three cities on the same trip.
It was early December, and things weren't what they are now. In fact, during the final stop of that trip in Phoenix, the Stars had an epiphany that would prove to be the turning point of their season, coming in the form of both team and individual meetings with head coach Dave Tippett, general manager Doug Armstrong and the management staff.
Clearing the air. Laying down the law.
"There's a lot of different names you could call it," Stars defenseman Don Sweeney said.
Unlike other meetings up to that point, this one changed things. Mired in their longest losing streak of the season (which would reach five games after a loss in Phoenix), somehow, this time, the bond was created.
One possible reason is that these meetings in Phoenix focused not just on the individual and not just on the team, but rather each individual's role in the team.
"It was made clear what type of team we want and what type of player you are expected to be in that team," Stars right wing Scott Young said. "There were no questions about anyone's role individually or their role in the team. It was all cleared up."
What management wanted, and what they began getting, was championship style play from a team that has won six of the last seven division titles. Since that meeting, the Stars have earned points in 23 of the 29 games, going 16-6-7 during the stretch and at the same time moving from out of a potential playoff spot and into the chase for the Pacific Division title.
Oddly enough, the Stars actually lost the ensuing game after that meeting, a 2-1 defeat to the Coyotes. Yet they had clearly played better, dominating the game territorially and outshooting the Coyotes by a 41-18 count in the contest.
The foundation had seemingly been laid for a turnaround.
"We lost the game right after that, but we played a lot better," Sweeney said. "We played the way we were supposed to play.
"We played with passion."
There was one other aspect of the trip -- and potentially of the turnaround -- that cannot be ignored.
Long before the trip, team management had decided to fly the players' wives to Phoenix because of the two-day break between games, a gesture of good will from the team to the players and a way to celebrate the "family" unity of a team.
Upon arrival in Phoenix, admittedly, some worried about the timing of the pre-planned getaway, considering the Stars had lost the first three games of the trip.
In retrospect, it turns out the presence of the wives may very well have helped with the turnaround.
"I always believed it was a good idea," Stars center Pierre Turgeon said. "The point was for us to get to know everyone's families, which is nice. If you get closer that way the team is closer and you play more like a team."
His coach completely concurred.
"I would agree with that 100 percent," Tippett said. "We were trying to bring our team together. A team is a family and the families of the players are very strong support systems that are involved in the whole process."
They also provided a healthy diversion for the players.
In the midst of a losing streak, it's easy to focus on nothing but the game and how to get out of it. With the wives in town, Young said, their minds were cleared.
"They let us step away from hockey a little bit," Young said. "We all went to dinner with our wives, the wives all went out together and it really ended up working out well. That way you're not just sitting in your room thinking about hockey driving yourself crazy."
Now, all the Stars are thinking about is keeping this run alive, one that currently includes an eight-game unbeaten streak (6-0-2). And, they're relishing the chance to get another shot at three divisional foes now that their game, unity, attitude and confidence are all at season-high levels.
"All of those things are factors," Sweeney said. "But we're still in a hell of a race here, so we've got to continue to get better."
*On Thursday, the Stars activated goaltender Ron Tugnutt off injured reserve and assigned him to Utah so he could get some playing time. He said he would play Saturday and Monday with the Grizzlies and hopes to be able to return to the Stars' lineup soon so he can give Marty Turco a breather. "That's what I was brought here to do," Tugnutt said. "It's about time I got to doing that."
*The Stars are unbeaten in nine of their last 11 games against Phoenix (6-2-3-0).
*Sweeney enters the road trip having not been a minus player in any of his last 25 games, recording a plus-13 rating during the stretch.
*Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov has points in four of the last five games (1-5-6) and in six of the last eight games (1-7-8). He is just three assists shy of becoming the only defenseman to register nine consecutive seasons with 30 assists or more (Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom is nine assists shy of accomplishing this same feat).