Andrew Cogliano

Dallas Stars emerge from eventful first half in solid shape

DALLAS — There was the 1-7-1 start for the Dallas Stars, who had such high expectations after an impressive playoff run last season.

When they started consistently winning again, there was the shocking coaching change unrelated to anything on the ice.

Dallas then opened 2020 with another comeback victory on New Year’s Day, outdoors at Cotton Bowl Stadium before 85,630 fans – the second-largest crowd ever to see an NHL game.

“Forty-one games, and it seems like we’ve been through 100,” center Andrew Cogliano said.

This has already been an eventful regular season for the Stars, and they are only halfway done.

Through it all, the Stars (23-14-4, 50 points) are third in the Western Conference standings after the 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators in the Winter Classic. It was the third win in a row for Dallas, which came from behind in the third period in each of those games.

“Our team still hasn’t even shown our true potential. Lately, especially after the coach change, we’ve been very inconsistent and all over the map, and trying to put our identity back together,” center Jason Dickinson said. “So I think we’re on our way there, and we’ve still got half a season to go. It’s about time for us to really hone in on that stuff.”

Dallas will be back inside, at home in the American Airlines Center, to start the second half of its 82-game regular-season schedule Friday night against Detroit.

The Stars are 6-3-1 since second-year head coach Jim Montgomery was fired Dec. 10 for unspecified unprofessional conduct. They beat New Jersey 2-0 that night when Rick Bowness, in his second season in Dallas, took over as interim head coach for the rest of the season.

Bowness has coached in more NHL games than anyone – 2,238 overall, 473 as a head coach – and in five different decades after Wednesday’s win to kick off the new year.

“I didn’t want to be put in this position because you don’t expect it. None of us saw it coming, so when it was thrown at us, we were all completely in shock,” said Bowness, adding that he came to Dallas with the goal of helping the Stars and Montgomery win the Stanley Cup.

Now Bowness is calling the shots on the bench for the Stars, who last April made the playoffs for only the third time in 11 seasons. They won a six-game series against Nashville in the first round, then went seven games in the Western Conference semifinals before falling to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis.

Bowness said players were shocked as much as the other coaches about the dismissal of Montgomery, but that they have all together invested in what they have to do to win games.

“It happens in sports. You lose players, guys get traded. … Obviously, your coach, that doesn’t happen all the time,” goalie Ben Bishop said. “When the coach gets fired or let go, you still have your job to do. And I think guys, you know, continue to do their jobs. And obviously the players are the ones who go out there and execute the game plan.”

Bishop and other Stars players say that transition was made easier with Bowness, with the 64-year-old Canadian’s experience and an upbeat personality a bit different than Montgomery’s.

“To take over that role midway through the season speaks volumes to what kind of coach he is,” Cogliano said.

After that horrendous nine-game start to the season, the Stars went 14-1-1 over the next five weeks. They then had an 0-3-1 slide before two wins in a row preceded the sudden coaching change.

“We have an idea where when we’re good, how we want to play and our compete level. And just a lot of trustworthy players out there wanting to play the right way,” said veteran forward Joe Pavelski, one of the Stars newcomers this season. “Up to this point, I would say we’re a pretty resilient group.

“The coaching change and different things like that, guys have just stuck together, stayed resilient,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll just keep making us better.”

The Buzzer: Penguins prolong Oilers’ woes; Incendiary Acciari

Acciari hat trick
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Three Stars

1. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers

Acciari never generated a multi-goal game before Monday’s hat trick. The Panthers forward authored quite a few firsts this week, as he added another hat trick (a natural one, too) against Dallas. Acciari completed his hat trick with a penalty shot goal, collecting another first.

Acciari actually assisted on a Vincent Trocheck goal for his point of the night, so he generated four overall on Friday. Click here for more on Acciari’s stunning spurt of hat tricks.

2. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin celebrated their 900th game together by bullying the poor Devils.

Backstrom matched Acciari by generating four points on Friday. In Backstrom’s case, the Swede collected two goals and two assists. The Capitals point out that this outburst pushes Backstrom to 900 points in his 900 games alongside Ovechkin. (Consider that an early factoid.)

Ovechkin and John Carlson enjoyed one-goal, one-assist nights themselves.

3. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season, Nylander struggled after finally signing with Toronto, finishing with 27 points in 54 games. The 23-year-old reached 27 points on Friday, merely Nylander’s 36th game of 2019-20. Nylander produced two goals and one assist against New Jersey on Friday.

Generating 27 points in 36 games would translate to a 61 or 62 point pace (hinging on if you round up). Nylander managing such a pace would almost be too fitting, as 61 points is his career-high from both 2016-17 and 2017-18.

Highlight of the Night (non-Acciari division)

Picture a Maple Leafs – Rangers game, and you’ll envision lots of goals and plenty of mistakes. The two teams delivered, with Mitch Marner really making the Rangers pay on this nice goal. Jacob Trouba bumping him likely hurt a lot less:

Comic relief by way of a fight

Hockey players humble us with their feats of athletic fancy, so this goofy “fight” between Miles Wood and Nick Jensen serves as an amusing change of pace:

Factoids

Scores

TOR 6 – NYR 3
WSH 6 – NJD 3
FLA 7 – DAL 4
PIT 5 – EDM 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stars have cap space to make big moves

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After years of being on a bargain contract, Tyler Seguin‘s finally going to get paid – to the tune of $9.85 million per year – starting next season.

With Jamie Benn already at $9.5M per pop, and the two once being called bleeping horsebleep by a high-ranking executive, you’d think that the Dallas Stars would be headed for a painful cap crunch this offseason.

As it turns out … nope, not really. The Stars actually stare down a Texas-sized opportunity to surround Benn and Seguin with some premier talent, whether they use a surprisingly robust amount of cap space to land free agents or if the Stars target yet another splashy trade. (They went the trade route to brain the Bruins out of Seguin, after all.)

Let’s take a look at the Stars’ larger situation to see how promising it could be, with copious help from Cap Friendly’s listings.

[For another breakdown of a Central team with promise, consider the Avalanche’s situation.]

A ton of bad money clearing away, or soon to clear

Jason Spezza isn’t as washed up as his lowest moments would make you think but … $7.5M was an agonizing cap number to hang on him, nonetheless. When you look at Spezza’s $7.5M basically being forwarded to Seguin’s bank account, it makes that raise more palatable, and also is a first step in understanding how the Stars are in a pretty solid salary situation.

The Stars will also see Marc Methot‘s $4.9M evaporate, along with the $1.5M buyout to Antti Niemi. After 2019-20, they can say goodbye to the mistake that was the Martin Hanzal deal ($4.75M), assuming they don’t do something sooner.

Heading into the offseason, Cap Friendly estimates the Stars allocating a bit less than $60.8M to 15 players. If the cap ceiling reaches $83M, that gives the Stars approximately $22.2M to work with, and some decisions to make.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

To Zucc or not to Zucc?

There’s another salary expiring in the form of Mats Zuccarello‘s post-retention $3.1M, and the Stars face a riddle in deciding what to do with the near-instant cult hero.

On one hand, Zuccarello is rad, and easy to like. His creativity clearly opened things up for his linemates, at least once Zuccarello is healthy. There won’t be a ton of comparable options on the free agent market, and he seems interested in sticking around.

On the other hand, Zuccarello is 31, will turn 32 in September, and has dealt with some lousy injury luck. Allow me to jog your memory about Zuccarello suffering a skull fracture in 2015, an injury that briefly impaired his ability to speak. It’s pretty stunning that Zuccarello ever played professional hockey again after that injury, let alone playing such a high level.

So, again, Zucc is rad … but there are red flags. And then, of course, there are the conditions of that trade from the Rangers. If the Stars re-sign Zuccarello, they’d cough up a first-round pick to the Rangers, instead of a third-rounder.

Maybe the Stars should look at it as a win-win situation: you either bring back Zuccarello, or keep that first-rounder and reduce your risks? One thing seems clear: Stars fans already love him … and can you blame them?

[More on the Zuccarello dilemma.]

Old and new

Like the Avalanche, I’d argue that the Stars have incentive to be aggressive while they still have some bargain contracts. Dallas diverges a bit from Colorado in that the situation screams even more for additions sooner, rather than later.

While Benn and Seguin total close to $20M in cap space, other key Stars rank as bargains.

  • John Klingberg provides Norris-caliber defensive play for just $4.25M, and that cap hit runs through 2021-22.
  • Ben Bishop was otherworldly, and even if slippage is basically unavoidable, the 32-year-old clocks in at less than $5M per season through 2022-23. That may eventually be a problem (big goalies only tend to get hurt more as they age, not less), but he was probably worth $9M in 2018-19 alone.
  • Anton Khudobin was almost as impressive as Bishop, and with $2.5M for one more season, he buys the Stars some time to find a younger future goalie option, and also provides insulation from potential Bishop injuries.
  • Miro Heiskanen jumped almost instantly into heavy-usage as a rookie defenseman, and the Stars get the 19-year-old on his dirt-cheap rookie contract for two more seasons.
  • Roope Hintz looked like a budding star during the playoffs, and the power forward’s entry-level contract runs through 2019-20. That gives the Stars time to try to hash out an extension, and also time to figure out what he’s truly capable of.
  • Alexander Radulov has been fantastic for the Stars, and the 32-year-old’s $6.25M cap hit looks more than fair today. Maybe it will start to get dicey (it expires after 2021-22), but so far, so good.

That’s a fabulous foundation, and the Stars don’t have too many pressing contracts to deal with this summer, aside from finding the right price for RFA Esa Lindell. (Let me pause for embellishment jokes. Go ahead, get them out of your system.)

The Stars have a pretty nice mix of veterans and young guns, but they should make haste, because those veterans could hit the wall. Again, Bishop and Radulov are both 32, while Jamie Benn’s a rugged player who will turn 30 in July.

Age would linger as a question, in particular, if they bring back Zuccarello (31), Ben Lovejoy (35), and/or Roman Polak (33), considering that they already have Blake Comeau (33) and Andrew Cogliano (31) as veteran supporting cast members.

To me, this all points to an “add now” strategy. Maybe Phil Kessel would look good in green. It couldn’t hurt to see if Dallas is a big enough city for Artemi Panarin. And so on.

***

The Stars booted the Predators and gave the Blues all they could handle as constituted during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so there’s an argument for allowing that roster to simply try to build on 2018-19.

Still, when I look at the structure of this team, I don’t necessarily see the system that, at times, leaned far too heavily on scoring just enough while Ben Bishop saved the day. Heiskanen and Klingberg give the Stars two outstanding (and cheap) defensemen who can play a modern game, and there were times when Seguin – Benn – Radulov looked like one of the league’s most dominant trios. As Hintz and others improve, this roster could also take some of the pressure off of Benn and Seguin.

In sports, you don’t always know how wide your window is going to be open, and I’d argue the Stars should go bold, rather than waiting. A Kessel, Panarin, Matt Duchene, P.K. Subban or perhaps a returning Zuccarello could give Dallas the extra push they need, to say, win those big, double-OT Game 7s.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blues survive wild finish to take Game 3 from Stars

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If you spend any time on social media, you know that hockey fans have a lot to say about officiating during any contest in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. And you can apply that griping – accurate or overwrought – to basically all over forms of competition.

It was difficult to ignore some of the key calls in the St. Louis Blues’ 4-3 win against the Dallas Stars in Game 3, giving the Blues a 2-1 series lead.

The headline-grabbing moments came late. For one, Patrick Maroon scored the game-winner with 1:38 remaining in the third period after it sure seemed like Maroon got away with an interference penalty against Esa Lindell to create all of that one-on-one time with defenseless Stars goalie Ben Bishop.

But, personally, it sure seemed like the Stars tripped a Blues player in Dallas’ zone to help open up the odd-man rush that allowed Dallas to score a 2-2 shorthanded goal. An optimist (or someone who’s not a fan of either teams?) might rationalize it as two missed calls canceling out. Maybe.

(It’s quick early on and then in an additional replay, but you can see Andrew Cogliano bring his opponent down before scoring. You could make an argument that was penalty-worthy, and the same with Maroon, or you could argue for just one, or neither.)

We can debate those moments until we’re blue (or Blues) in the face, but another pivotal moment came when an official didn’t doom a team. Colton Parayko was (correctly) called for putting a puck over the glass with 44 seconds remaining, giving the Stars a power-play chance to tie things up. The Blues finally held off the Stars that time around, holding onto a win.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Don’t discount the Blues holding off the Stars at the end, as Dallas was remarkably resilient in managing comebacks in this one. The Blues lost leads of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 before finally holding off the persistent Stars. The wildest stretch happened during the third period, as Dallas and St. Louis combined for three goals in just 2:46 of game time, and also combined for four goals in 5:16. For such a buttoned-down Game 3 defensively, and a series that’s largely involved skin-tight defense, this was a stunning scoring spree.

Well, it would be a more stunning score spree if, you know, this postseason wasn’t consistently mind-blowing.

Both goalies were generally strong in Game 3. There was some concern about Ben Bishop after he had difficulty getting to his feet making a save (and maybe was a little slow on a 2-1 Blues goal), but Bishop seemed to play quite well overall, so maybe that was a dodged bullet. Bishop and Jordan Binnington made some huge, difficult saves in Game 3, giving us the goalie duel we expected heading into Round 2.

[More on Bishop’s injury scare]

After carving out an impressive three road wins against the Winnipeg Jets in Round 1, the Blues remain perfect away from home during this run, as they won this first skirmish in Dallas. The Blues are up 2-1 in Round 2, but if the Stars’ hustle is any indication, more wins won’t come easily.

And there might be more controversy.

The Stars will host the Blues in Game 4 at American Airlines Center on Wednesday. Game 4 airs at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN (stream here).

Stars’ Bishop has injury scare in Game 3

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Dallas Stars (star) goalie Ben Bishop had trouble getting up after falling awkwardly making a save during the second period of Game 3 against the St. Louis Blues.

[Airing on NBCSN — stream here]

The good news is that Bishop didn’t leave Game 3 at all. In fact, during that same frame, Bishop made one of his trademark tremendous passes to set up an Andrew Cogliano semi-breakaway, and stopped Ryan O'Reilly on a similar opportunity. Performance-wise, it’s difficult to really tell that Bishop might be dealing something, although maybe you’d make a mild argument that it had some impact on the 2-1 goal?

Maybe Bishop and the Stars dodged a bullet, and we’re merely worried about a close call.

Still, there are a few reasons to at least monitor Bishop:

  • Bishop’s injury history is undeniable.
  • As one of the largest goalies in the NHL, he’s more likely to aggravate injuries new and old. That’s the disadvantage to boasting the sort of towering frame that teams covet. He’s also 32, so Bishop’s dealt with quite a bit of wear and tear, even if you ignore his size.
  • The situation could get worse once adrenaline wears off, whether that may mean during an intermission, or possibly after Game 3 altogether.
  • In the foreseeable situation where Bishop plays hurt, it’s possible he could be less mobile. Would he be less able to move post-to-post? Might he struggle to get to loose pucks and rebounds?

On the bright side, if Bishop needs to miss time, Anton Khudobin was almost as lights-out this season as Bishop was, aside from when Bishop somehow found yet another gear toward the end of the regular season. Khudobin’s a veteran, although rust would be a consideration, as he hasn’t played since April 5.

Again, this could be concern over nothing, but it certainly looked painful. Then again, goalies can bend their bodies like Gumby, in ways that almost seem inhuman, so it might not be as bad as it looked.

Game 3 is on NBC; stream it here.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.