Road Testing the Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in overtime Sunday night, 4-3. It was the second meeting in as many nights for the two clubs, and the game kicked off a daunting road trip — five games, with four different start times, spread across three time zones, and including two back-to-backs (if you count Saturday’s game vs. Chicago in Dallas).

And that’s not all. Alternate captain Jason Spezza suffered what the team is calling a “lower-body” injury Saturday night. He’s day-to-day, which forced the Stars to recall forward Justin Dowling from the AHL’s Texas Stars.

While Dallas hosted Chicago Saturday, Texas wrapped up a three-game West Coast trip in Bakersfield. Dowling flew directly to Chicago from the Golden State and arrived too worn out to play in Sunday’s contest.

Stars coach Lindy Ruff wisely decided to rest the road-weary Dowling Sunday night. To give the team four complete forward lines, defenseman Patrik Nemeth played left wing on a line with Devin Shore and Lauri Korpikoski. Injuries have forced the bench boss to create a lineup which looks nothing like that which was projected in late September.

Such is the current state of the Stars — battered, bruised and apparently hell-bent on answering the question, “How far can we go on duct tape and determination alone?” Given the multitude of issues facing the club, a whirlwind western road trip would seem to be the last thing the Stars need…but things, as the saying goes, aren’t always what they seem.

How the Stars Handle the Road

With so many new faces in the lineup, a road trip might be just what the doctor ordered.

“It’s definitely a good team bonding trip early in the year,” said journeyman forward Adam Cracknell. “This road trip is where we can kind of separate ourselves, see what kind of team we have.”

Away from home, the world suddenly gets much smaller for hockey players. Absent the multitude of distractions which make up daily life at home, life on the road revolves around two things: the game and the team. With few exceptions, players eat every meal together — if not as a large group, then in twos or threes. Younger guys on entry-level contracts share a hotel room with a teammate; for veterans, it’s optional. Add to the mix time spent together on planes and buses, and it’s easy to see how relative strangers can get to know one another quickly.

Surprisingly, the toughest aspect of a trip like the Stars’ November Odyssey isn’t the different start times, time zones or back-to-back games.

“It’s just finding time for these guys to rest,” said Ruff. “To let them pour it all out for sixty minutes and then making sure, as a coach, that we don’t over-extend away from the game. It’s going to be a mental grind, and I have to do a good job once that game’s over, whether it’s good or bad, to get them away from it.”

“I think it’s just fitting in our rest, getting it when you need it,” said Cracknell, echoing Ruff’s comments. “I think the coaching staff here is big on rest and just adjusting as we can and kind of, ‘take what you need to get ready’ for these games…Definitely, we know the travel is going to be tough right now, so taking care of ourselves off the ice can be just as important as what we do on the ice.”

Stars vs The World

Though a newcomer to the club, Cracknell has a firm grasp of the Stars’ current situation and what it’s going to take to overcome it. “Once the game starts, we know what we have to do…We’re going to play for each other in this room.”

That “us-against-the-world” mentality is exactly what the injury-ravaged Stars need right now. In the close confines of buses, planes, hotel rooms and dressing rooms, that mindset can spread from player to player. This road trip couldn’t have come at a better time.