DALLAS -- Through two rounds of the playoffs, the Dallas Stars are playing better than they did last season when they won the Stanley Cup.
Mike Modano has the top line in high gear and Joe Nieuwendyk is making the second line nearly as potent. The Derian Hatcher-led defense has maintained the tempo Dallas prefers and goaltender Ed Belfour has been spectacular.
But the Stars know what they've done so far counts only as a good start. They realize they'll need to be even better in the Western Conference finals against a Colorado team playing equally well, if not better.
"We were chuckling a little bit because this is the first time in a very long time that this team we have come in as an underdog," Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We'll need a lot of things to go our way."
The Avalanche and Stars have each lost just one game per round in setting up a rematch of last year's conference finals. Both have allowed 18 goals, though Colorado has scored two more than Dallas.
The Stars have had an easier road in facing Edmonton than San Jose. Colorado has gone through Phoenix and Detroit.
Then again, the Avalanche have been going through everyone since acquiring defenseman Ray Bourque from Boston. They're 20-4-1 since his arrival even with a knee injury keeping him out of the last two games.
Colorado coach Bob Hartley got a close look at Dallas on Sunday night as he watched their 4-1 victory over San Jose from the stands.
Nieuwendyk started the scoring midway through the first period. Then linemate Scott Thornton followed with another goal three minutes later.
After some excellent stops by Belfour protected the lead in the second period, the Stars scored power-play goals 41 seconds apart in the third period to really blow things out.
Belfour came within 11:28 of a third straight home shutout, but instead settled for a scoreless streak of 187 minutes, 25 seconds at Reunion Arena. He's led Dallas to eight straight playoff wins at home.
"I'm feeling stronger and stronger," said Belfour, whose steadiness all season has helped the Stars win while working in new players and weathering a series of injuries. "A couple games, I didn't play well. But I feel I get better as the playoffs go on."
Dallas also got this far with an 8-2 record last season, but five of those wins came in overtime. The Stars have yet to need extra time this postseason.
Their games have been close, though. Five of their victories, and a loss, have been by one goal.
Colorado has had more breathing room. The Avalanche have had only three of 10 games decided by one goal; two were wins, one of them in overtime.
The minor differences in results match their minor differences in personnel. Like Dallas, Colorado has four lines that are expected to produce, six quality defensemen and a superb, seasoned goaltender.
The teams went seven games in last year's conference finals. The Stars rebounded from a 3-2 hole to advance to the Stanley Cup finals, then beat Buffalo in six games.
The Avs are even better now and Dallas knows it must be, too.
"They're playing solid and they have a lot of momentum and confidence," Modano said. "This is going to be a great series, just like it was last year. We just have to keep focusing on the fact we're eight wins away."
Four of them will have to come against Patrick Roy, who has the most postseason wins of any goalie in NHL history. Belfour, though, has been the best goalie the last three postseasons, leading Dallas to the conference finals each time.
"I always like the challenge of playing against Patrick," Belfour said. "The games are always competitive. I don't expect anything different."
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