DALLAS — The Dallas Stars overcame the obstacles needed to win the Stanley Cup last season because of a superb locker-room chemistry that bonded them like brothers.
This season, the Stars have been held together by bandages.
A seemingly endless series of injuries has threatened to derail Dallas' title defense. However, a renewed sense of camaraderie has helped the Stars climb to first in the Pacific Division and third in the Western Conference. There's even an outside shot they could jump past Detroit and St. Louis to claim a third straight President's Trophy.
"I don't think we're keeping an eye on anybody," forward Jamie Langenbrunner said. "We've just got to make sure we keep playing good hockey."
The Stars reminded themselves and the rest of the NHL they're still an elite team by going 4-1-1 in recent games against Colorado (twice), Detroit (twice), Philadelphia and Phoenix. Another showdown awaited Sunday at home against St. Louis.
Then again, some sort of challenge seems to await Dallas every day.
On Tuesday, the Stars learned that Guy Carbonneau would be out three weeks with a broken right wrist. Then goalie Eddie Belfour was arrested Wednesday following a tussle in a hotel. He can't return until he's cleared by mental and substance abuse counselors.
That 1-2 punch took the joy out of Joe Nieuwendyk's planned return Friday night. He'd missed 21 straight games with a shoulder injury and missed 10 of the previous 13 with a rib problem.
Injuries cost Dallas players 181 games last season. The Stars blew by that figure long ago this season and are on pace to more than double it.
The injured list currently includes Jere Lehtinen, the NHL's top defensive forward the last two seasons; Blake Sloan, one of Dallas' fastest skaters and most aggressive players; forward Brian Skrudland; and defenseman Shawn Chambers.
"I think once you get into the spin, you don't get out," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "You don't ever put yourself in a position to get totally healthy because as people come back in, the people who have been extended beyond their means are tired."
Others who've been on the injured list include defensive leader and team captain Derian Hatcher, fellow defensemen Richard Matvichuk and Daryl Sydor, and Langenbrunner. Offensive leader Mike Modano has missed four games because of head injuries.
"For two or three months, it's been, 'Just tell us who can play,' " Hitchcock said. "If we didn't adopt that attitude and get on with it, we'd be devastated."
Dallas was devastated early this season because of injuries and trouble breaking a few new guys into the lineup.
A few days before Thanksgiving, the Stars had an 0-3-2 skid--their worst in four years--that left them 8-10-3, last in the Pacific Division.
Then came a four-game winning streak. They haven't lost consecutive games since late December, and going into Friday night's game against the Islanders, they were on a 10-5-2 roll since losing to St. Louis on Jan. 28.
"Everybody has accepted the fact we've missed key guys for a number of games and has been able to move on and keep playing," Modano said. "It's a real tribute to the younger guys and new faces that we've been able to pull together. It's made us a better team."
That's easy to say now. But it wasn't so long ago the Stars were trying to figure out which younger guys and new faces they could keep and which needed to go.
Since November, Dallas has gotten rid of former Czech star Pavel Patera and brought in Kirk Muller from the NHL's scrap heap, sent Juha Lind to Montreal for Scott Thornton, and acquired defensemen Sylvain Cote and Dave Manson from Chicago.
The Stars also have exhausted the resources of their top farm club, repeatedly sending players to and from Dallas. Through the shuffling, Brenden Morrow, Roman Lyashenko and Aaron Gavey emerged as keepers.
"It was actually easier on us because of the injuries," said Morrow, who had three game-winners among his first 13 goals. "Usually, if you're a younger player and you make a couple of mistakes, you're out of the lineup. But they were in a situation where they didn't really have many guys to take our spots, so we could relax a little."
So much turnover and so many injuries could've torn apart a weak locker room. For the Stars, it has given the newcomers and the championship holdovers the common experience needed to unite them.
"We told our players, 'Look, this is the group for the next part of the season, so get used to it. Figure out a way to make it work.' And they've done it," Hitchcock said. "They've started to build. The process is ongoing, but this is a team that prides itself on getting along."
Another driving force is the reemergence of Modano, who had 15 goals and 16 assists in his last 21 games through Wednesday.
Modano had begun the season slowly. He suffered a frightening concussion in the second game, then another in January. That led to a stretch where he felt like getting away from the game for a while.
Instead, he stoked his desire by paying more attention to hockey. He viewed practices as a chance to work on his game. He savored the time afterward spent hanging out with teammates.
"Eventually, you just say, enough's enough," Modano said. "I think at the All-Star break, I kind of did a little bit of searching. It's been very gratifying to finally get my game together."
It's also been a lift to the rest of the team.
"It doesn't really matter who he plays with, he knows every time he's on the ice that he's going to create something," Carbonneau said. "With all the injuries, we kind of need a guy like that who can do those kind of things."