The Dallas Stars will play their first meaningful hockey game in almost five months when they open round robin play against the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday evening in Edmonton. And while they won’t be facing elimination for another week, these first three games are an opportunity to adopt a playoff mindset and ramp up the intensity.
In a way, the Dallas Stars have been “back” a number of times over the past two months.
They were “back” when the NHL announced its initial Return To Play plans on May 26. And then, there was the beginning of Phase 2 when players were allowed to return to the Comerica Center in Frisco for small group workouts and on-ice sessions. They were also “back” when they took the ice for a two-week training camp as a full team on July 13. And on Thursday, they were returned to a competitive setting for an exhibition game against the Nashville Predators at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
But while all of those moments on the timeline of the NHL’s pause due to the coronavirus pandemic were significant in their own way, the Dallas Stars were never truly “back.”
That is, until today.
It’s been eight days since the Dallas Stars and 23 other NHL teams first entered their respective bubbles to prepare for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Each team was given one exhibition game and a few practices to get their final checks done and get ready for the games that count. And on Saturday morning, the qualifying round opened with a five-game slate that was followed by five more contests on Sunday.
Playoff hockey is alive and well in Edmonton and Toronto right now. The thrills of bone-rattling hits, buzzer-beater goals, frenetic speed, high-spirited fights, and the ever-exciting chase for the Stanley Cup are back on and prevalent in each game.
That bodes well for the Dallas Stars. After all, it’s their first time being in the playoffs in back-to-back years since 2008. And with last year’s run setting the table for another intriguing run this time around, the expectations are high.
And that’s what makes Monday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights so special. Not only are the Stars back in action, but they are doing so in a postseason setting. Not only are they playing meaningful hockey again, but they are doing so with a chance to clinch the top seed in the Western Conference before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.
That’s why the intensity and mindset has to be at a playoff level starting on Monday evening.
“For us, the playoffs started today,” head coach Rick Bowness said on Saturday. “With this round robin, we have an opportunity to go from the fourth to first seed. We want to approach this as the playoffs. The meeting this morning was focused on the urgency and the intensity of the playoffs has started.”
The Stars will face the Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche (Aug. 5), and St. Louis Blues (Aug. 9) during the round robin. It’s a tournament against the three best teams in the conference. While that may seem daunting, it also provides Dallas with a unique opportunity.
If the Stars can find a way to win one or two games, they could move up in the standings. If they win all three, they clinch the top seed going into the playoffs and would face the lowest remaining seed in each round due to the re-seeding setup. And if they lose all three, they won’t fall any further in the standings.
So, it plays out rather well for Dallas. They have a chance to shake things up in the top four and get out in better or, at the very least, the same shape that they were in at the start.
And that’s why the game against the Golden Knights is such a unique starting point.
“That’s a very, very good hockey club and they’re very well-balanced,” Bowness said about Vegas on Saturday. “They’re big, strong, and physical. Their defense is very mobile and they’ve got one of the best goalies in the League in [Marc-Andre] Fleury. This is a very good hockey club. It’s the balance and the experience they have.”
Bowness and other Stars coaches went to the exhibition game between the Golden Knights and the Arizona Coyotes to scout out their first round-robin opponent. Vegas won the game, 4-1, and didn’t look as though they had missed a beat since the pause on March 12.
This is a Golden Knights team that was on an 11-2-0 run at the time of the pause. They have a talented tandem in net with Fleury and Robin Lehner (who will get the start against Dallas). Their offensive attack is loaded with star talent, including Mark Stone, Paul Stastny, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. They also have a deep and mobile blue line.
They have already been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice and the Stanley Cup Final once since joining the League in 2017. They are built around experience and look like a team that could make a deep run at the Cup this year.
“That will be a very tough opponent for us on Monday,” Bowness said. “We have a lot of respect for the coaching staff there. … But that all being said, we have to make sure we’re playing our game for 60 minutes. We’ve had some tough games with them in the past and really physical games. We expect that kind of game on Monday afternoon.”
It’s a stout test for the Dallas Stars, especially with a 2-0 loss against the Nashville Predators on Thursday sitting in their recent memory. In that exhibition game, the Stars played their typical defense-first style while struggling to generate offensive chances and zone time. The game didn’t sprout a ton of promise for the Stars, but it gave a glimpse of where the team is right now.
And that’s why the mindset and intensity has to be right on Monday evening.
“These round robin games are going to be tough,” Bowness said. “Those are three excellent hockey clubs and they deserve to be ahead of us in the standings. It’s up to us to prove that we can beat them and move up in the seeding. We want a playoff intensity right away.”
While the round robin gives the Stars a chance to incorporate things they worked on in training camp into their game plan, they can also use the games to prove themselves as legitimate contenders.
“We approach it as we’re in playoffs right now,” Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak said. “Obviously, you’re not going to get home ice advantage, but if you can get last change, I think that definitely could work in your favor. So that and just getting ready for a playoff series, these three games are going to be huge. I think everyone is just ready to get things going.”
Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin split time in the exhibition game and each have a solid case to start on Monday, but Bowness wouldn’t tip his hand on his decision on Sunday evening. Tyler Seguin was unfit to play on Thursday, but is expected to play on Monday evening. Andrew Cogliano is also expected to be back in the lineup after leaving Thursday’s game early, so the Stars should be able to field their full lineup.
The Stars went through a full practice on Sunday with a healthy lineup, and Bowness expects to use the same lineup that he used on the last day of training camp:
Jamie Oleksiak – Miro Heiskanen
The Golden Knights offer a tough challenge out of the gate, but maybe that’s what the Dallas Stars need. For a team that endured a number of ups and downs during the rollercoaster that was the 2019-20 season, starting these meaningful games against a well-balanced and deep opponent could be a good confidence booster. It should also be a chance for the Stars to continue working on new strategies.
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Can the Dallas defense be more active in the offensive zone? Can they create more puck possession and longer shifts? Will that turn into more scoring chances and, in turn, more goals? Can each line gel properly and give the Stars a deep attack?
Dallas went 1-0-1 against Vegas this year, though both games (a 4-2 win on Nov. 25 and a 3-2 overtime loss on Dec. 13) took place in 2019 and both teams have gone through extensive changes since their last meetings. Both teams will face off against a new side of each other, and that’s what makes this round robin so important. It will depend on which teams can adapt the fastest after a long layoff and who can get the intensity up and keep it steady throughout the next week.
Can the Dallas Stars find their way to the top of the West over the next three games? It seems they have the right tools to make it happen. A lot of it will depend on if they can adopt the necessary mentality, capitalize on the important points of their scheme, and improve in the areas that need improvement.
There’s no better way to go about that than by squaring off with Vegas in the first game that will count in almost five months.