The Dallas Morning News

Seguin’s hunger lets Stars feast

Driven by chance at playoffs, center steps up his game

- TIM COWLISHAW wtcowlisha­w@dallasnews.com

The worst thing that happened to the Stars during their run to a second-round Game 7 in 2016 was not having Tyler Seguin to battle St. Louis because of an Achilles injury.

Among the very best things happening right now for the

Stars — winners of six of their last seven after beating St. Louis and passing the Blues in the standings Friday — is Seguin missing all those playoff games with that injury.

“I’m not trying to get ahead of things and trying to keep it all in perspectiv­e right now,” he said late Friday after that tight 2-1 victory. “But I’m definitely desperate.”

If the Stars return to the playoffs — and they should but it’s no lock due to the depth of quality teams in the Central Division — they will end the local drought. 2017 and 2013 are the only two years this century in which the Stars, Mavs, Rangers and

Cowboys all whiffed on the postseason.

And I don’t need to tell you that Rick Carlisle’s bunch isn’t ending this streak.

The Stars should get there, and when they do, the Seguin you will see is different from the one who played in just one first-round game in 2016 and was mostly shut down in the battle with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf and the Ducks in 2014. Now Seguin is doing much of the shutting down — he was excellent when the Stars were battling a four-minute short-handed situation in the closing minutes Friday — as his transforma­tion into a two-way player continues.

It was coach Ken Hitchcock’s No. 1 priority when he took the reins from Lindy Ruff last spring. Seguin will tell you that he loves it, that any good player wants to be on the ice in all critical situations. Hitchcock will tell you it’s a work in progress but he likes the direction the 26-year-old center is taking.

“The next step is beating the other team’s top line. When he can kill penalties, be effective on the power play and battle the other team’s best and win those battles, that’s when he’s a No. 1,” Hitchcock said.

Even in the Hitchcock world of tighter checking and its heavy emphasis on defending, Seguin is tied for sixth in the NHL with 29 goals although none of the players on the Stars’ top line ranks in the top 20 in overall scoring. Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov are just outside it with 53 points, and Seguin’s right behind with 51.

“A couple of years ago we’d all have crazy numbers,” Seguin said, briefly reliving the days of Ruff’s go-for-broke style, “but now it’s all about checking the other team’s best players. In Boston, Claude [Julien] really had that defensive element that I recognize in Hitch’s system. There we had a great goalie in Tim Thomas, and here we have two. It’s the right way to play.”

Yes, Seguin has bought all the way in, and that’s natural for a highly skilled player in his first year with Hitchcock. Sometimes it’s not so easy by Year 3, but the Stars can worry about that at a later date.

For now, their top line is efficient if not always breathtaki­ng and the franchise has regained its winning ways that propelled it to greatness two decades ago. In his determinat­ion to become Mike Modano 2.0, if Seguin hasn’t reached the original’s level of fan appeal, it’s in part because Benn as captain stood slightly ahead of him as a player during their first three seasons together.

But that wasn’t true a year ago, and it’s not true now. Benn has slightly more points, but his game has more question marks. Radulov is the wild card on the line, capable of making good or bad things happen but not in equal capacity. His positive plays clearly outweigh the mistakes.

“I didn’t know about Rad’s competitiv­eness and his character,” Seguin said. “He’s really brought the compete level to our line.”

It’s Seguin whose improvemen­t will need to be in evidence come April when a thing called the playoffs will return to the Dallas sports scene after a considerab­le absence. There was a time Seguin thought playoff games were the most natural thing in the world. When he was 21, he had played in 42 postseason games with the Bruins and already had his name on the Stanley Cup.

Despite mostly stellar offensive play here for five years, Seguin has suited up for just seven playoff games. He’s ready to add to that total and hopes it to be by a significan­t number.

“We got there two years ago, but obviously I was battling injuries and it was frustratin­g,” he said. “I’m ready to get back there.”

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