With training camp winding down, the Dallas Stars have spent the past few days scrimmaging as they try to incorporate new ideas into their play and work out any kinks. It’s all part of preparing for the excitement and uncertainty surrounding this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Trust the process.
For the past two years, my college sports broadcasting partner and I have used that phrase when discussing our journeys through the sports media world. It’s a tough industry to break into for work, and an even tougher one to keep working in at times. As a result, you have to work hard, stay persistent, always try to go the extra mile in your efforts, and hope that the cards fall in your favor.
Throughout our senior year of college, the motto became a rallying cry of sorts as we tried to figure out our next step after graduation. We used it to remind each other to stay determined and not fall victim to uncertainty.
Over the past 12 days, the Dallas Stars have had to trust the process a lot.
When the NHL began Phase 3 of its Return To Play Plan on July 13 and 24 teams around the NHL opened up training camps, there was no telling how the Stars may look. It was the first time that the entire team had been on the ice for a formal practice since March 11. And with each player on the roster having varied levels of access to workout equipment and ice during the pause, it was unclear just how close to “game shape” they might be.
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That’s why interim head coach Rick Bowness centered the first few days of camp around conditioning and getting the roster back up to speed. In addition to incorporating some new strategies and ideas into their game plan and a few special teams sessions, much of the first five days was spent doing drills, skating, and building up chemistry.
Throughout all of that, the clock was ticking.
The idea of having just 13 days to get the team ready for meaningful games after a 124-day break is not an easy one to digest. The Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators will square off in Edmonton (the Western Conference hub city) for an exhibition game in six days. Four days later, they will open round-robin play against the Vegas Golden Knights. A little over one week after that, they will start their push in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That’s a lot to process in a small window of time, and there is room for uncertainty and chaos to take over. That’s where trust must come into play. After all, each of the 24 teams bound for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers is in a similar boat right now.
The Stars finished the 2019-20 season as the fourth-best team in the Western Conference. As a result, they landed a spot in the round-robin during the qualifying round and a guaranteed spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That’s a secure spot to be in. If the Stars lose all three games, they don’t move down in the standings. If they win a few, the potential is there to move into one of the top three seeds in the West.
Those three games also give them a chance to continue working out any kinks from a long pause and incorporating the strategies and principles learned in camp into their game plan. All of this can be done without fear of elimination or being sent home.
And yet, those games still hold value. They offer the Stars a chance to see how they stack up against the top three teams in the conference. Everyone is healthy and at full strength once again, so the playing field should be level. Add in the fact that the Stars went a combined 6-3-2 against Vegas, the Colorado Avalanche, and St. Louis Blues during the 2019-20 regular season, and there’s reason to believe they could make a run through the round-robin.
Can they turn in similar success? And will they be ready to go head-to-head against three of the top teams in the West?
That’s where scrimmaging can be beneficial. It gives the Dallas Stars an opportunity to ramp up the intensity, battle it out against an opposing team (albeit, one composed of teammates), and trying to get their game legs back under them. Forwards can build chemistry with their line-mates, defensemen can get reacquainted with their partners and with the flow of the game, and goaltenders can face shots and offensive attacks at game speed.
It’s also a chance for the team to work on new ideas as it gets ready for play in the bubble.
The Dallas Stars began scrimmaging on Sunday, but had their first intra-squad game on Wednesday. The game consisted of full team uniforms, balanced rosters for Team Green and Team White, and three 15-minute periods. No penalties were called, though the assistant coaches were on the ice to call icings, offsides, and other non-penalty infractions.
The result was a dominant 6-3 win for Team White. Blake Comeau scored twice, while Andrew Cogliano, Justin Dowling, Denis Gurianov, and Joel L’Esperance each had a goal for Team White. Anton Khudobin was strong in net for White, making 31 saves on 34 shots. Ty Dellandrea, Nick Caamano, and Alexander Radulov scored for Team Green, while Ben Bishop made 20 saves on 26 shots.
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The teams returned to the ice on Thursday for another intra-squad game consisting of two 20-minute periods on Thursday. Team Green flipped the script from the day prior, capturing a 4-0 win thanks to goals from Joe Pavelski, Joel Kiviranta, Mattias Janmark, and Jason Dickinson, and a 22-save shutout for Jake Oettinger (Bishop was given the day off for maintenance).
And while scrimmages can only prepare a team so much, the Dallas Stars seemed to use them to their fullest advantage. They continued trusting the process, and it began to show signs of paying off.
“What we’re looking for is, ‘Are we getting on in areas we know we can improve on?'” Bowness said in a Zoom call on Wednesday evening. “‘Regardless of the puck going in or not, are we catching on the principles that we put in place from the first day?’ I think we saw a lot of encouraging signs that we are.”
The games offered a good look at what the Stars are still doing well, what they are starting to do better, and what they still need to work on.
Andrew Cogliano, Radek Faksa, and Blake Comeau showed that they were still arguably the most consistent line on the team. They combined for three of White’s six goals on Wednesday and were suffocating in the defensive zone, as they’ve become known for over the past two seasons. They were efficient in breakouts and transition, and looked fast and threatening.
They showed that, in addition to reinforcing their defensive style, they are working on transforming it into helpful offense.
"“We’ve played a lot together the last few years. We’ve all got a really good feel for how each other plays and we have a dynamic as a line which gives us our identity. We know what our role is and we’re just going to pick up where we left off.” — Stars forward Blake Comeau"
“We’re not going to lose our identity,” Bowness added after Wednesday’s intra-squad game. “The Faksa line is a perfect example that you can generate a lot of offense by playing good defense. That’s why they were the most dominant line on the ice today.”
The other returning line of Mattias Janmark, Joe Pavelski, and Alexander Radulov showed plenty of jump in both sessions, scoring a goal on Wednesday and adding two more on Thursday. They had a number of extended shifts in the offensive zone and were impressive with possessing the puck, creating scoring chances, and activating the defensemen in the attack. Those are all principles that the Stars have been working to improve across the lineup during camp.
“That was the best line on the ice,” Bowness said after Thursday’s game. “They’re reading off of each other really well, they’re hanging onto the puck, and they’re finding each other. That’s why they’re making such good plays. There is some nice-looking chemistry there. They’re a tough line to play against because they’re possessing the puck for a long time out there.”
"“I think we played well together when we were on a line during the regular season. I think we had a couple of good games where we created a lot of good chances and were kind of feeding off of each other. It all starts from hard work. It’s been good. Hard work and we’ll eventually get our chances. We have to build off of that and stay hungry all the time. Come playoff time, those two really step it up.” — Mattias Janmark on his line’s chemistry"
They continue to develop chemistry and could end up being one of the Stars’ most creative lines in the postseason.
Young guys like Ty Dellandrea, Jason Robertson, Thomas Harley, and Jake Oettinger have been noticeable and look hungry in camp, while some of the veterans have taken a little longer to get going. Bishop struggled in his start on Wednesday, while Khudobin gave up four goals on 11 shots in the first period on Thursday.
And while the Dallas Stars gave up the second-fewest goals in the NHL during the 2019-20 regular season, there were 13 total goals allowed in 85 minutes of gameplay. Is that due to bad defensive setup or better offensive play? What if it’s a little bit of both?
There’s also the two new lines. Jamie Benn, Jason Dickinson, and Corey Perry struggled in both zones on Wednesday, but looked much more connected on Thursday and even scored the final goal in Green’s 4-0 win. Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz, and Tyler Seguin had a goal thanks to Gurianov’s play on the rush on Wednesday, but were scoreless on Thursday.
Both lines believe that the chemistry is still brewing, but there are positive signs that both are getting better with each scrimmage. Seguin is adapting to playing on the wing with his line, while Benn and Perry are still getting up to speed with Dickinson at center.
It’s all about trusting the process right now.
Pucks and Pitchforks
“Those two lines are an example of we need more scrimmage time,” Bowness said on Wednesday. “They need to be able to read off of each other. … We’ve just got to give them a few more scrimmages to see. If there comes a point where we don’t like what we see, there’s a Plan B and we know what we’re going to do.”
In the special teams department, the penalty kill is trying to sharpen back up after stumbling through the latter part of the regular season (69.1 percent in the final 19 games). The power play is incorporating more shooters in hopes of boosting their 21.1 percent rate even higher in the playoffs. Both groups are battling it out during each session, trying to frustrate the other side and getting the competitive juices flowing as a result.
The physicality is also ramping up. Andrew Cogliano laid a number of solid hits on Corey Perry during Thursday’s game. Jamie Benn and Esa Lindell got tangled up and crashed into the boards going for a loose puck. The sounds of the boards rattling throughout Comerica Center are getting more consistent with each camp session. And while Bowness doesn’t want to risk injury in any way, he knows that it’s important to incorporate the physical element as much as possible.
All of these efforts come from trusting the process. The Dallas Stars know that their path to the Stanley Cup Final is being overshadowed by a four-month break. They know that a two-week training camp may not be enough time to shake off all of the rust from the pause. They know that this season has been filled with ups, downs, twists, and turns.
All that they can really do at this point is trust in who they are and remain confident in their identity.
“Do we have to continue at it? Absolutely, and we have to see it when we play the real games,” Bowness said. “But at least with the building blocks we’re trying to put in place, we’re seeing the foundation and seeing some positive results.”
The Dallas Stars have one more training camp session scheduled for Saturday. On Sunday, they will head for Edmonton and secure themselves inside the bubble. And in a little over one week, they will drop the puck against the Golden Knights and begin their road to the Stanley Cup Final.
There’s a lot happening in a small amount of time. There’s no telling how the Stars or any other team returning to play may fare. This is a unique and never-before-seen setup and the potential for chaos is substantial. As a result, all the Stars can really do is trust the process and stay confident in their style.
And if the two most recent intra-squad games tell us anything, it’s that they are doing just that.