The Dallas Stars might 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,” said 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.
This road trip to Vegas & Chicago is the Stars annual Dad’s Trip. Spezza says the timing is perfect with the road struggles the team has had pic.twitter.com/ZT7guLSK2t
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) November 27, 2017
“We are turning things around,” Spezza said. 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 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 the first year. 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 said. “You kind of tinker with it, and find a way to jell, 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 said. “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.”
Hitchcock, as he typically does, is asking a lot of everyone. Spezza, for example, is playing more wing than he’s ever played in his career. “I struggled with it early,” the 34-year-old said. “But I’ve played better in the last month or so as I’ve gotten comfortable with it.”
Bishop is being asked to live up to hefty expectations for the first time in his career. He stumbled early but has played much better lately. Before Tuesday’s loss to Nashville, Bishop had won six of his past seven starts and looked outstanding while doing so, boasting a .938 save percentage with two shutouts in that span. “Personally, I feel comfortable,” he said. “I like the way I’m playing right now.”
And Seguin, perhaps, has been asked to do the most. Once seen as a one-dimensional sniper, Hitchcock has asked him to double down on defense and play both ends of the ice. “He talks about being offensive-minded, and … holding on to the puck a little bit more,” Seguin said. “But we’ve also talked about being more defensive and that’s also going to make me a better defensive player.”
The Stars star has found a rapport with his 65-year-old coach. “I think my favorite thing about [Hitchcock] is that he’s straightforward,” Sequin said. “I like how there’s not much gray [area] with him. It’s really black and white. You might get a lot of information at times, but it’s very cut and dried.”
Right now, it’s not cut and dried in the Central Division. The Stars are a fringe playoff team. But they figured out an antidote to the Vegas Flu, so perhaps they can find a way to shake their other early aches and pains, too.