The first half of the Dallas Stars' season featured a dismal start, a pair of injuries to key veterans and a major off-ice distraction from a new acquisition.
Despite all that, the Stars are in position to chase a sixth consecutive playoff berth. They'll continue that pursuit Tuesday when they return from the All-Star break to face the visiting Atlanta Thrashers for the first time since 2006.
After reaching the Western Conference finals last spring, the Stars stumbled to a 6-10-4 start to 2008-09. Their month of November included injuries to forward Brenden Morrow (torn right ACL) and defenseman Sergei Zubov (hip), both of whom remain out.
Dallas' most publicized problem came on Dec. 2, when forward Sean Avery gathered the media to make crude remarks about an ex-girlfriend and Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Avery, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has not played since.
"It was everything. (Avery) was definitely part of the problem, but there were so many things going on," Stars forward Steve Ott said. "Injuries, inexperience, and him obviously in the dressing room, all that stuff. And when you kind of start clearing away all the smoke, you finally see the true team, and I think that's what you've seen the last little while."
Dallas (20-18-7) has gone 9-4-3 since mid-December to move within four points of the final playoff spots in the West. They have at least one game in hand on each team they're chasing.
The Stars completed the first half with a 4-1 win at Florida last Wednesday, as center Mike Ribeiro notched the first hat trick of his career while Marty Turco made 27 saves.
"You can grasp momentum because we're going into the break, the timing of it is good," Stars coach Dave Tippett said after the win. "But it's more about building the belief system in your team that if you do the extra things that allow you to win it enhances your chances."
Dallas has won nine of 10 meetings all-time against the Thrashers, but hasn't faced Atlanta since a 5-3 win on Nov. 17, 2006. In that game, Turco moved to 5-0-0 with a 1.60 goals-against average in his career versus Atlanta.
The last-place Thrashers (17-26-5) seemed to be gaining momentum when they won three straight for the first time since November from Jan. 16-20, but they closed the first half with a 5-3 loss at Philadelphia last Wednesday.
"It's unfortunate," coach John Anderson said. "We hit a few posts, missed on a round of breakaways. We were creating chances. It's disappointing. I thought we played well enough at least to get a point."
Defense has been a problem all season for Atlanta, which ranks last in the NHL with a 3.58 team GAA. Dallas hasn't been much better, as its 3.29 mark ranks 27th. The clubs also have two of the league's worst penalty kills, with the Stars at 26th (77.7 percent) and the Thrashers 29th (74.1).
Atlanta lost the franchise's first four trips to Dallas before earning a 5-2 win in its most recent trip on Jan. 18, 2006 -- the only victory in club history versus the Stars.