The Dallas Stars find themselves in the unfamiliar position of looking down on the rest of the National Hockey League's Western Conference.
The Stars own an 8-2 record, having set a franchise record by winning their first six games. Dallas will try to continue that hot start when it hosts the Buffalo Sabres here tonight (8:30, Empire, Radio 550, 710).
Stars center Mike Modano is enjoying the ride that the team is on now, but realizes that the two powerhouses in the West -- the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings -- are the teams to beat in the long term. Modano's goals are more modest.
"We'd like to stay in the hunt with the top five in our conference, and maybe give those guys a big push when the playoffs come," said Modano, a center who led the team in points last season with 81. "Colorado and Detroit will be there in the end. They have depth, they have experience and they have talent."
But a playoff spot sounds good to a Dallas team that only watched the postseason last spring after a 26-42-14 regular season. The Stars opted for a "quick fix" approach to their problems over the summer, acquiring several new players. So far, at least, the moves have paid off.
"(General manager) Bob Gainey made some big, key acquisitions in the summertime," Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. "Now they are legitimate contenders to go for the big prize."
The Stars' biggest addition is Pat Verbeek. The right winger scored 41 goals for the New York Rangers last season, became a free agent in the summer and signed with Dallas.
"The Stars took aggressive action this summer to go after him," said Modano about Verbeek, who has nine points this season. "They thought he was a good character guy that would help the dressing room, and would set a good example for the younger guys like Todd Harvey. He's got great heart, great determination, and a great work ethic. . . . He learned a lot playing with Mark Messier last year in New York."
Dave Reid was the other major free agent signed by the Stars. He was coming off one of the best seasons of his career, scoring 23 goals for the Boston Bruins. The left winger has always been effective when his team is short-handed. Both of his goals this season have been game-winners, and one came with the Stars down a man.
"Dave has helped our penalty-killing and our five-on-five play," Modano said. "With him coming from Boston, there was a lot of responsibility (there for him) to be a penalty-killer. We have had a lot of penalties called on us so far, and he's been a great help to that part of our game."
The other major acquisition is Sergei Zubov, who came in a trade of defensemen with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dallas gave up Kevin Hatcher in the transaction, sacrificing some defense in favor of offense on its blue line.
"Sergei Zubov is one of the more creative defensemen we have," Modano said. "He's very good on the power play, where he can take charge in that area. It (the Dallas power play) really suffered last year, but with him back there with his poise and patience, it adds a lot to our special teams, and our four-on-four play. He also helps on even-strength. It gives that extra push from defense on a rush."
If the team's record is any indication, coach Ken Hitchcock has done a good job of mixing the new faces with the old ones like Greg Adams, Benoit Hogue, Derian Hatcher and Andy Moog. It is Hitchcock's first full season with the team. He took over in the middle of last season when Gainey decided to concentrate on his general manager's duties.
"Ken and Bob are similar in that they stress defense and team systems, and everyone being on the same page, offensively and defensively," Modano said. "I think Hitch is a little more on the go. He likes to forecheck a little harder. He likes to get in there rather than trap. He likes to force the defense to make turnovers and make mistakes in their own zone. That way we can go right to the net."
And the switch has paid off for Modano, who has four goals and eight assists for 12 points and is a plus-11 in 10 games.
"You're always skating, always trying to get open," Modano said about Hitchcock's system. "With Ken, our defense helps the offense more. It's helped us get off to a quick start, and it's helped me personally get the numbers."
Nolan said he planned to talk with backup goalie Andrei Trefilov late Tuesday about Trefilov's role on the team. The goalie had expressed dissatisfaction Sunday with his limited playing time. He played in his first game of the season that night.
"Dominik (Hasek) is in a class of his own, and he's going to play a lot," Nolan said. "Anyone who is the second goaltender will play in games that are few and far between. Dominik's got us where we are, and he'll take us where we want to go.
"Backup goalies have to be ready no matter when they play, just like backup quarterbacks."
The NHL has fined Sabres forward Matthew Barnaby $1,000 for his involvement in a stick duel with the New York Rangers Sunday night in New York.