What happened in Vegas? Dallas Stars finally aligned


The Dallas Stars may have found a cure for the Vegas Flu. While the rest of the teams in the league have slogged through their inaugural road trips to Sin City, the Stars aligned their Las Vegas visit with their annual dad's trip. Last week, 29 fathers, fathers-in-laws and brothers snapped selfies on the team plane and crammed together around the table for steak dinners as the Stars enjoyed themselves in Vegas and cruised to a 3-0 win. "It was smart," says veteran forward Jason Spezza. "Get the dads in trouble out there, instead of us."
When the Stars -- and their extended crew -- rolled into Chicago the next day, the mood was still light. After a morning skate, Ben Bishop Jr., hovered next to his son's locker stall as the former conducted an interview (the Stars goaltender is technically Ben Bishop III). Across the room, Tyler Seguin grinned as he shimmied out of his pads so he could scoot out and spend some time with his dad, Paul. "We've been playing crappy on the road at times," Seguin said, noting the team's 3-8-1 away record before the Vegas visit. "Because I think we talk about it so much and we forget to just play like we do at home. But this team is going to be OK."
Nine hours later, the Stars beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3 in overtime to return home with a sweep. A cynic might call this a small sample size or surmise that maybe the Stars put on a show for their guests. But there was a sense in the Dallas dressing room that this was something different.
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) November 27, 2017
"We are turning things around," Spezza says. Look at the Stars now -- they've won seven of their last nine while averaging 3.8 goals per game. And, despite a 5-2 loss to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, they still have a plus-11 goal differential during that span.
The Stars were the league's trendiest sleeper pick entering the season. Dallas finished 2016-17 with the second-worst record in franchise history, missing the playoffs by 15 points. Then came a splashy summer: Dallas signed Bishop signed as its No. 1 goalie, and also landed free-agent forwards Martin Hanzal and Alexander Radulov and traded for defenseman Marc Methot.
Plus, Ken Hitchcock -- the future Hall of Fame coach who led the Stars to their only Stanley Cup, in 1999 -- came back on board in April. Hitchcock, who was fired by the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 1, has a reputation as a defense-first guy who runs a tight ship, and his teams always improve in year one. With the Blackhawks likely to regress and the the Blues riddled with injuries, the Central Division figured to be wide open.
That's why the Stars' pedestrian start felt like a complete letdown. Dallas had slowed things down at even strength. At Thanksgiving, the Stars led the league with the fewest shots allowed per game (29.3) but were only firing 31.5 per game themselves. Some began to question whether Hitchcock, a coach known for his tight defensive style, was the right fit for a team whose best assets were a pair of elite goal scorers in Seguin and Jamie Benn.
What's more: Hitchcock was still fiddling with his line combinations at the season's quarter mark. "We listen to everyone's comments on what line combinations [should be]," Hitchcock said in Chicago. "We throw it into a blender, and whatever pops out, that's how we cook it. It's a good mix for Christmastime."
The coach was being facetious, but he wasn't totally kidding about seeing a need to mix things up and spread out his scoring. Hitchcock moved Seguin -- the fifth leading scorer in the NHL since he joined the Stars in 2013 -- off the top line, where he had been paired with Benn and Alexander Radulov, and gave the 25-year-old center his own line. But without a playmaking winger alongside him, Seguin's goal scoring began to suffer. So Hitchcock continued to tinker, sometimes even switching lines during games. After Hanzal went on injured reserve with hamstring issues, Hitchcock shuffled things some more.
"This is what happens when you get a whole new coaching staff and all these new players," Seguin rationalizes. "You kind of tinker with it, and find a way to gel, and figure out how we can put the best team on the ice and get the chemistry we want."
The Stars are still adapting to Hitchcock's system -- and preaching patience. "It's not that difficult," Spezza says. "It just takes time. It takes repetition. You learn what the coach likes in certain situations, and you just need time to let it sink in, that's all. The thing is, we've all bought in."