Stars shining after Avery debacle

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

DENVER -- Oh sure, it would be easy to pin the Dallas Stars turnaround on Sean Avery -- at least in terms of getting rid of the on-ice agitator and off-ice distraction.

Since the whole debacle of Avery's infamous off-colour comments in Calgary, subsequent suspension from the NHL and eventual banishment from the organization some two months ago, the Stars have jumped from NHL bottom feeders into a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

So it makes sense to believe by jettisoning the pest, the Stars are that much better team, right?

Maybe a little but not completely, insists goalie Marty Turco.

"That's a slap in the face to ourselves to blame everything on that guy," Turco said emphatically.

Tonight, Turco and the Stars will face the Flames for the first time since the disgraceful incident after the morning skate before they met at the Saddledome.

Avery made a crude reference about ex-girlfriends Elisha Cuthbert, the girlfriend of Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf, and Rachel Hunter, now wife of Los Angeles Kings forward Jarret Stoll.

He was given a six-game suspension by the NHL and dismissed by the Stars despite being in the first year of a four-year, US$15.5-million contract.

It was just the latest chapter in two months filled with embarrassing incidents both on and off the ice. Those included a brawl-filled game against the Boston Bruins that saw Avery front and centre that Stars captain Mike Modano spoke out by saying "idiotic and stupid," a couple of run-ins by Avery with female fans and comments made by the super-pest about a New York reporter's wife.

Players felt Avery's crossing of the line for the final time with the ex-girlfriend comments painted the whole organization in a negative light, and the general feeling is the Stars are better without his selfish antics.

Turco won't say his team's turnaround -- a 15-7-3 record started with a 3-1 victory over the Flames that night -- all happened because Avery was sent packing but will admit it became a huge turning point.

"Even before, we knew it was time for a wake-up call and to get going. The dialogue in our room was to band together," Turco said. "I think it did make us look at ourselves in the mirror about what we were doing on and off the ice.

"We needed a spark or, in this case, an anti-spark to turn things around."

Yes, they were rid of a dressing room annoyance. No, that wasn't going to be enough.

"We might have been feeling sorry for ourselves because we weren't winning, but the record was exactly where we were," Turco said.

So what changed to pull them from last in the Western Conference, where they stood before playing the Flames Dec. 2, to the sixth spot they hold today?

"We pushed all the excuses aside and knew it wasn't one guy," Turco said. "We all knew we could play 100 times better, as a team and as individuals."

That meant being a better team defensively, better on the penalty kill, cutting down stupid penalties -- a by-product of not having Avery around either to take them or to force guys to defend situations -- and scoring timely goals.

"All those little things that go without saying to be successful," Turco said. "What it came down to is doing all the things this team has preached about and built on to have success."

Of course, Turco also turned around his own game.

For example, he's allowed 11 goals in the last six games -- five of them wins.

"I'm no different than anybody else who cares about the team," Turco said. "You want to be Superman at times and do everything, but that's no way to play goal."


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