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THE STARS used to take their lead from former captain Mike Modano: fluid and skilled. Now they more closely resemble present captain Brenden Morrow: grinding and determined. That's how coach Dave Tippett likes it. "By making other teams fight for space," Tippett says, "we want to be uncomfortable to play against."
Ninth in the NHL with 237 goals last season, Dallas can still outgun teams. The top three centers—Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards and Modano—each scored at least 20 goals, and Morrow led the team with 32, though few of those were fit for a highlight tape. The winger, whose 260 hits was third in the league, does his best work in scrums.
For all the grit on their forward lines—and the presence of superpest Sean Avery makes the Stars an even more insufferable opponent—the team's Stanley Cup hopes rest on the unheralded defense in front of solid goaltender Marty Turco. At 38, puck-moving backliner Sergei Zubov is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he played fewer than 70 games (only 46) for the first time in 11 seasons. That leaves a core of defensemen who are only slightly less green than the star on the Dallas sweater: Matt Niskanen, 21; Mark Fistric, 22; Nicklas Grossman, 23; and Trevor Daley, 24, will all see significant minutes.
"Confidence is earned," Tippett says. "They're young players, but [after last season's success] they have got to feel better about where they are."
The club, one of the league's stingiest on the penalty kill, is as skilled as the one that fell two wins shy of the finals last spring. And it's a team that will already have a playoff snarl in October.