DALLAS - Free from the burden of repeated playoff failures, the Dallas Stars had another reason to feel relieved Wednesday.
Defenceman Sergei Zubov, out since January with various ailments, returned to practice and said he felt good afterward. That news improved his chances of playing against San Jose in the second-round series that starts Friday.
But the Stars say they know better than to let a sense of relief dampen the sense of urgency that helped them eliminate defending Stanley Cup-champion Anaheim and end a streak of three straight first-round playoff exits.
Goalie Marty Turco dismissed the suggestion as "humorous."
"You treat every playoff series the exact same, the same urgency, the same discipline ... or you're not going win that series," said forward Steve Ott. "It doesn't matter if it's the first round or the fourth round. If there's not an urgency out there, you're not going to win."
Several of these Stars were around the last time Dallas saw the second round, but new teammate Brad Richards is the only one who recently made a long run. The playoff MVP for Tampa Bay's Cup-winning team in 2004 says there's plenty of work to be done.
"We're not going to have a letdown," Richards said. "It's whether we can keep going to new levels, levels that we don't even know where they're at yet."
The Stars will know their opponent, that's for sure.
Dallas' rivalry with San Jose took a strange turn in a meaningless finale, the last of eight between the two during the regular season. The teams fought almost from the drop of the puck, compiling 105 penalty minutes in the first period and 160 for the game.
The Stars won 4-2 and considered it far from meaningless. At the time, they were trying to reverse a late-season slump. They did more than that, perhaps bonding and preparing for the physical approach Anaheim took in the first round.
"There was more penalties than I would have anticipated by far," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "Our team needed that, not necessarily because it was San Jose, but our team needed that to play well."
At one point this season, the Stars thought they needed Zubov to have a chance in the playoffs. A foot injury sidelined him initially, and he aggravated a sports hernia from last year's playoffs when he tried to come back.
In an effort to speed his recovery, Zubov recently went to Germany for his second sports hernia surgery in less than a year.
"When I feel I can be effective, I'll be in there," he said Wednesday. "I'm almost there."
In Zubov's absence, veterans Stephane Robidas and Mattias Norstrom have anchored a group of defencemen that held up despite relying heavily on several players making their first playoff appearances.
Robidas, who had six points and a plus-2 rating against Anaheim, scored the tying goal and assisted on the winning goal in the series-clinching contest, one game after his nose was broken by an errant puck.
Norstrom said those efforts must continue, with or without Zubov.
"I think that's something we need to be aware of as a group of defencemen is it's not, 'OK, let's sit back and watch what Zubie's going to do,"' Norstrom said. "The best way to help him coming back and playing at his best level is for us to keep pushing ourselves."
Tippett took the Stars to the second round his rookie season as coach. He knows better than most the difficulty of escaping the first round, and he thinks that test could serve as a spark.
"When you go into the playoffs, you never think about just getting by the first round; you think about winning a championship," he said. "There's hurdles along the way, but that first round, getting out of there, is a big hurdle.
"Our guys, I think it'll bring the best out of them."
And it could bring back one of the Stars' best players.