After stumbling into the NHL Holiday Break, the Dallas Stars have since bounced back and found new momentum. And with that momentum now carrying them into the New Year, they’re ready to dive into the fun and excitement that is the 2020 Winter Classic.
When the Dallas Stars returned to the ice for practice following the NHL Holiday Break on Dec. 27, there was an uncharacteristically different vibe surrounding the team.
After building a six-week stretch of positivity, dominance, and confidence that included an 18-4-3 streak to counter a rough 1-7-1 start to the year, the Stars had fallen into a 1-3-0 skid. They had given up 17 goals over the span and had been shredded in the defensive zone and while shorthanded, two areas that have been consistent strengths for the team since the beginning of the 2018-19 season.
Something just didn’t seem right. It was almost as if a piece had been missing from the overall makeup of the team.
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Regardless of what had the Stars plagued, the biggest stage of the NHL regular season was making its way to the Lone Star State for a Jan. 1 showdown at the Cotton Bowl. The ice surface was being constructed, the stadium was being prepped, and the 2020 Winter Classic was taking shape at the State Fair of Texas.
But while there was excitement about the big game brewing around the organization following Christmas, the players were focused on something else: the two games standing between them and New Year’s Day.
The Stars had a back-to-back that included travel scheduled for the weekend leading up to Jan. 1. It included a home game against a division rival in the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday, as well as a visit to the desert to take on the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday. Each game presented its own challenge to a Dallas Stars team trying to reestablish its identity in time for the biggest regular season game in franchise history.
As the Winter Classic popped up in questions around the locker room following Friday’s practice, the answers remained consistent from each player.
“We have a quick back-to-back here that’s kind of overshadowing it right now because we put ourselves in a bad situation before the break,” Jason Dickinson said. “There are no easy games for us here and we have to focus on those first.”
We have a big game tomorrow with a divisional opponent in Colorado on home ice,” Ben Bishop said. “That’s the main focus right now. After that Arizona game, you can sit back and really think about it.”
“I’m really excited that it’s coming, but we’ve got two really important games before it,” Miro Heiskanen added. “I think we need to focus on those games and then start thinking about the Winter Classic.”
The Stars wanted to keep their focus on the task at hand, a skill that they have learned extensively through various trials in the first half of the 2019-20 season. From a 1-7-1 start to the sudden firing of head coach Jim Montgomery, the Dallas Stars have been forced to “take it one day at a time,” if you will, for most of the season.
Andrew Cogliano seemed to summarize it best after practice when he said, “It seems that, with how the season has been going, you don’t really have time to think about [the Winter Classic].”
But this mode of thinking can be a positive when it’s applied properly. And that’s exactly what the Stars did this past weekend.
After falling behind 2-1 midway through the game against the Avalanche, Denis Gurianov evened the score on a power play goal in the third. The Stars eventually won 3-2 in a shootout, with Ben Bishop making a season-high 41 saves and Dallas rebounding with a 3-for-3 effort on the penalty kill.
24 hours later, the Stars were outshot 22-5 in the first period against the Coyotes and found themselves in a 2-0 hole entering the third period. But, with a little bit of added grit and energy, Dallas rattled off four unanswered goals. Jamie Benn led the charge with the opening goal, an assist on the tying goal, and a scrap with Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the final minute of the game.
The focus was applied and executed properly, and the Dallas Stars built themselves a special amount of momentum as a result. They fought their way back into third place in the Central Division with a 22-14-4 record and 48 points, brought their goals against average back down, and sparked two comeback efforts to pick up four points.
And now, the focus can shift to the Winter Classic.
“It’s our next game, so the timing is perfect,” Rick Bowness joked when asked if he would finally talk about the New Year’s Day game. “We’re absolutely thrilled to be a part of this. We’ve done this since ‘08 and I’ve watched every game.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of it. It’s an outstanding event for the League and a fantastic event for this city and our franchise. We’re absolutely thrilled to be a part of it.”
It’s been one year since the NHL officially announced that the Stars would host the 2020 Winter Classic. Since then, there have been endless preparations, planning, and excitement growing around the event.
“When we heard the news that we were going to maybe get a chance at an outdoor game, that was really neat,” Bishop said. “To find out that it was the real deal made it even sweeter. It’ll be a great experience.”
And while many are still uncertain about the thought of outdoor hockey in Texas, the NHL, Stars, and Predators are prepared to make it a one-of-a-kind experience that will never be forgotten.
“This was never a thought,” Dickinson said about playing in an outdoor game with Dallas. “To think that Dallas would not only be in a Winter Classic, but be hosting it, is unbelievable. It’s an awesome opportunity to get to be a part of it.
“It’s history to do it in a stadium like that and a climate like this. It’ll be a lot of fun and I’m sure our fans are going to be happy that they get to tailgate.”
The two teams will take the ice at the Cotton Bowl for the first time on Tuesday and get a practice in as well as a family skate. After that, the ice will be cleaned one last time and prepped for puck drop at 1:00 PM on Wednesday.
After an unexpected and crazy first 40 games of the 2019-20 season, the Dallas Stars now get a chance to enjoy and soak in one of the NHL’s best traditions in their home city and further ignite a rivalry that has been brewing over the past few seasons.
“It’s going to be cool here,” Cogliano said. “These two teams probably wouldn’t have been in the same conversation. With the Winter Classic, it feels like you always see the same teams on TV for that.
“This feels like a different feel with being in Texas and playing against Nashville. Our fans are excited, the fan base in the city is excited, and I don’t think it gets much better than this.”