- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

For five years, the Dallas Stars were a smooth-running machine. Every spring they wound up atop their division with 100 points or more and went deep into the playoffs. Only the Colorado Avalanche could match Dallas for sustained NHL excellence.
"I wouldn't say we just showed up and won, but for a long time, we knew we had a good team and that if we played our style, we would win a lot of games," said center Mike Modano, the franchise's all-time scoring leader.
But last May, the gears jammed as Dallas was swept by the St. Louis Blues in the second round. The aftereffects of that embarrassing defeat are still being felt by the Stars, who came to MCI Center last night clinging to the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
After scoring just once in the four games against the Blues, top gun Brett Hull wasn't re-signed last summer. Forwards Mike Keane, Ted Donato and Grant Marshall also were sent packing. Forwards Pierre Turgeon, Donald Audette, Pat Verbeek, Valery Kamensky and Rob DiMaio were added as free agents, and defenseman Jyrki Lumme was acquired in a trade.
With DiMaio's release yesterday, only Turgeon who managed just three goals and 18 points in his first 31 games before heating up and Verbeek a member of the Stars' 1999 Stanley Cup champions remain. Holdovers Benoit Hogue and Shaun Van Allen also were dealt, while Dave Manson and Martin Rucinsky arrived and Scott Pellerin, Brent Gilchrist and John MacLean were signed off waivers. It's the second time in Dallas for Manson, Gilchrist and MacLean. And rumors continue to fly about more moves before Tuesday's trade deadline.
"We're 65 games into the season, and we're still in a bit of a transition," coach Rick Wilson said. "We haven't been able to get the cohesiveness and chemistry together. This is a new situation for our team."
The personnel changes were only part of the chaos that has enveloped one of the NHL's recent bedrock franchises. On Jan.25 with Dallas at 23-17-6-4, coach Ken Hitchcock and 10th-year general manager Bob Gainey were axed and replaced by longtime respective assistants Wilson and Doug Armstrong. Modano said the moves came as a bit of a shock, although the players had tuned out Hitchcock after six years of hearing the same message.
"Too much was made of the players vs. Hitch, but the parting of the ways was probably necessary," center Joe Nieuwendyk said. "The [on-ice] system hasn't changed, but when Rick took over, there was a new sense of enthusiasm in the locker room."
After losing its first game following the Olympic break, Dallas reeled off four victories before home-ice losses to Minnesota and New Jersey last weekend. The lowly Wild scored five goals, and the Devils dealt the Stars their third shutout of the year.
"We were playing great, and then it looked like October and November again," said Modano, who leads Dallas with 31 goals and 58 points despite struggling so much lately that Wilson can't find him proper linemates and has even used him as a defenseman. "We're still trying to rekindle that hard-working, offense-comes-from-defense mentality."
Before last night's game, Dallas was 7-6-1 under Wilson and had only a two-point lead on Edmonton for the West's final postseason berth.
"I don't think anybody thought we'd be in this position when the season started, but this season is by no means a throwaway," Nieuwendyk said. "We might be one of those teams that teams might be afraid to play against [in the playoffs]."
The veteran-laden Stars (average age 30), who have the NHL's best road record the last six years and have won 49 games in a row when leading after two periods, certainly won't be fazed by postseason pressure. Modano, Nieuwendyk, Verbeek, goalie Ed Belfour, defensemen Derian Hatcher, Darryl Sydor, Richard Matvichuk and Sergei Zubov and forwards Jere Lehtinen, Jamie Langenbrunner and Jon Sim have rings from 1999. Gilchrist won a Cup with Detroit, and MacLean claimed one with New Jersey. Defenseman Manson and forwards Kirk Muller and Brenden Morrow were part of the runner-up Dallas team in 2000.
But before they can think about upsetting the Red Wings or Avalanche in the playoffs, the Stars have to get there.


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