Adversity is a huge part of any hockey season. The team that can overcome it the most, is usually set up to make a run. For the Dallas Stars, they go even further than just overcoming it. Over the last two seasons, the Stars have been forced to not only overcome adversity but to accept it. With the plethora of injuries, a sudden coaching change, and distractions all around, the team has bought into the belief of the next man up.
The belief is that the next man up needs to step in and fill the necessary role that an individual can no longer perform. It is based on the team having full faith in whoever fills that role, no matter their experience. This played a huge part in their Stanley Cup Final run last season and is key to their success this season.
Bowness is the Man
The Stars thought that they had finally found their future coach in Jim Montgomery in 2018. He was the youngest coach in the league at the time and had taken them to Game 7 of the second round in his first season. This would be the first time that players like Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have had a consistent coach in their time in Dallas. That all disappeared on Dec. 10, 2019, when Montgomery was fired due to acts of unprofessionalism. Then, 66-year-old assistant coach Rick Bowness was asked to step in and lead the team for the rest of the season.
Bowness had plenty of experience both as a head coach and as an assistant, but it was a tough task for anyone on such short notice. Bowness defied the odds, leading the Stars to the best win percentage in the entire league up until the COVID-19 league stoppage. His team found every possible way to win games. “He’s probably the best coach that I’ve played for,” said captain Benn.
The Stars would go on to stand behind their coach and deal with the adversity together in a tough bubble situation up in Edmonton. When the season ended, Bowness decided, with his teams’ full support, to accept the job full time. Every player in that room has spoken up about how excited they are that he was returning to the bench. It has been so far, so good for Bowness, as he has the team off to a great start in this shortened 2020-21 season with a full training camp under his belt.
Dobby to the Rescue
Anton Khudobin has been a backup goalie his entire career and has excelled in that role behind some of the biggest names in the league. His newest role in Dallas is behind Ben Bishop, a former Vezina Trophy finalist. Khudobin was brought in due to the excessive number of injuries that Bishop has dealt with in his career. He went on to play roughly a 40-60 percent split the last few seasons, with some starting time when Bishop was injured.
When the 2020 Playoffs came around, Bishop was once again not available. Khudobin met this challenge head-on and started 24 of the team’s 26 playoff games. While everyone was counting the Stars out early, Khudobin had an incredible playoff run with a record of 14-10, and a save percentage of .917. He consistently made key saves when his team needed it most, stealing a few sure-goals off the board.
His teammates and coaches describe him as a hard-working guy that does everything he can to stop the puck. His attitude is contagious and he makes his teammates want to play hard and sacrifice for him. That is a huge part of what led the Stars to just two wins away from the Stanley Cup. Going into this season, the challenge continues as Bishop is expected to miss nearly ¾ of the season due to the same injury.
A New Playoff Hero
The big injuries to key players really began in the second round of the playoffs vs. the Colorado Avalanche. The Stars were without Andrew Cogliano, Bishop, and Stephen Johns heading into a Game 7 matchup. The biggest of those injuries at the time seemed to be Cogliano, who was part of the team’s checking line that was responsible for keeping the top Avalanche players quiet. They were forced to insert rookie Joel Kiviranta for his playoff debut instead.
Kiviranta played 14:51 in the game and shocked the world. He tied the game at one with a nice deflection in the first period, scoring just his second NHL goal. Then, he tied the game late in the third just 10 seconds after the Avalanche scored what seemed to be the late game-winning goal. Last but not least, he found himself open in the slot in overtime for an incredible hat trick goal to push his team to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2008. He will now play a top-six forward role in the 2020-21 season with his confidence riding high.
Ain’t No Big Surprise
These performances may come as a shock to the outside world, but inside the Stars’ locker room, they are expected. The team looks to be impossible to rattle as they continue performing at high levels no matter how many players are missing from the lineup. That will be a massive part of this season as they have already dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks and plenty of injuries. Dallas will already be missing Bishop and Seguin for most of the season on top of any other injuries that come up.
Overcoming adversity is even more important this season as there will be plenty of it for all teams with cancellations, injuries, and changes on a daily basis. However, coming off a heartbreaking Stanley Cup Final loss, the Stars seem to be perfectly built to accept and overcome it.
Sam Nestler is a Dallas Stars contributor for the ‘The Hockey Writers’. Growing up in New Jersey, Sam has been playing hockey since he was 7 years old. Developing a love for writing in college, Sam uses his hockey knowledge to create analyses and articles on every aspect of the game. Sam also hosts his own podcast on Spotify, the “Slapshot Sammy’ podcast, breaking down action across the NHL and NCAA. Check out the podcast here, and give his latest article a read!