Avery's absence a plus

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

They arrived in town in a lighter mood, playing better hockey, minus a mouthpiece.

The last time the Dallas Stars were in Edmonton, they were a team languishing in last place, dealing with the fallout from the Sean Avery foot-in-mouth incident.

BANISHMENT

A six-game suspension by the league for his unflattering remarks about fellow players and his ex-girlfriends, combined with a banishment by the team, had the Stars in a better frame of mind as they prepared to take on the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place last night.

"Certainly that's been a little cloud that has blown over," said Stars winger Mike Modano.

"The guys are enjoying their game and having fun. Sure, there were parts of our game that Sean certainly did have an effect on, but our play was certainly below average.

"It's been fun again, everybody is finally playing at the level we were expected to play at, individually and as a team. There were signs of it here and there before, but it was really inconsistent. But lately, it's been an on-going thing day in and day out."

The Stars are 7-3-1 since losing to the Oilers a day after Avery's comments and his subsequent suspension by the league.

The Stars have since washed their hands of the winger despite still being on the hook for the four-year, $15.5 million US contract they signed him to this off-season.

"He was a very noticeable guy in the dressing room and we haven't had to notice him for quite some time," said Stars goaltender Marty Turco.

"Our play has been tremendously better of late and our attitude has picked up as well off the ice.

"Whether that has a little bit or a lot to do with it, we're not really sure -- but we don't really care, either.

"We've made some additions by subtractions through those events and it's been quite some time since we've had to think about it because we haven't come up here (Canada) in quite some time, so we haven't had those distractions."

Heading into last night, the Stars were 12th in the Western Conference standings, three points out of playoff spots.

EXPECTED TO CHALLENGE

Having made it to the Western Conference final last season, they were expected to challenge for a division title this year.

"We're trying to get it back to where it was before," Turco said.

"We just weren't putting it all together for whatever reason. But we're still in a dogfight. We're close to a playoff spot but a quick slide could put us right back behind the eight ball.

"It's all about the next day, getting better and pushing towards new levels where we need to go.

"We're not in the playoffs yet, and if we do manage to get enough points to be in it, we know we're going to have to push hard to keep it.."

Having a couple of players back from injury in Steve Ott and Jere Lehtinen has also helped, although two big pieces of the roster in captain Brenden Morrow (knee) and Sergei Zubov (hip) are out for the season.

"We're working and doing the things that enable us to have the puck more, play in the opposing end a lot more and thus when you have the puck more you're defensive end is going to be better," said head coach Dave Tippett.

"We've solidified some lines and our defence has got into some rhythm and it allows you to play more as a team.

"We were full of injuries and full of distractions the last time we were in here and we've moved forward."


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