The Stars have been stuck on the sidelines over the last 13 days due to a COVID outbreak that made its way through their NHL and American Hockey League clubs. Their last game came on Dec. 20, 2021, when they beat the Minnesota Wild 7-4 on home ice. As players begin to trickle back into the lineup, the season looks to be ready to kick back off on Jan. 6 against the Florida Panthers. For Dallas, they will look to find the familiar momentum they have found in the past when COVID put halts on their 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.
Stars Have Been Here Before
The entire COVID situation in the NHL began back in March 2020, when the league called for a pause as the world dealt with the new deadly virus. After nearly five months without sports, the NHL resumed play in the bubbles of Edmonton and Toronto, with the mission of handing out the Stanley Cup. The conditions were tough, the empty buildings were quiet, but the teams were there for one reason only, to win the greatest trophy in all of sports.
For the Dallas Stars, this trip was all business. After an up and down season which included a six-game losing streak heading into the break, the Stars made a run that will always be remembered. Following a rough outing in their first three round-robin games, the Stars found their stride, defeating the Calgary Flames in six games, the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, and the Vegas Golden Knights in five. Both Colorado and Vegas were among the favorites to win it all but Dallas handled them, pushing themselves into their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years.
Although they fell short, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games, the run was truly magical as they fought through countless injuries, adversity, and found a way to win on a consistent basis.
Fast forward to Jan. 2021 as the NHL kicked off its 2020-21 season. The Stars were forced to miss their first four games when COVID found its way into their locker room. After the break, Dallas came out on fire, winning their first four games and scoring at a ridiculous pace. Perhaps, they used their previous experience to roar out of the gates? Maybe the leaders of the group pushed everyone to work harder during the downtime so that the restart felt more like an opportunity rather than a challenge? Whatever it was, the team responded just as they did the previous season and played like one of the best teams in the NHL.
Can The Stars Do It All Over Again?
Now, Dallas is on its way to another restart. They have missed six games, practiced with only a few players, and watched as they drifted towards the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Can they draw on previous experience and fly out of the gates once again? Will that experience truly help?
“It does. They’ve been through it, we’ve been through it, Bowness said when asked if previous postponements will help the team this season. “We know how to prepare when we come back. If the league gives us the time, it will be another mini training camp like we did last year after COVID and after the ice storm. The experience of what we went through last year, that will help us this year.”
This challenge will be unlike the season before it. They have far more players that have been hit with the illness and have missed far more time than they had last season. However, after dealing with the 2020 stoppage, they seem to be a team that is destined to storm out of the gates.
“I think the fact we have been through this before, we kind of know where we’re at,” Jamie Benn said. “We don’t know an exact date when we’re going to play next, hopefully, Sunday, but we’re preparing for that.”
There are certainly a lot of factors that go into this situation, including when they will play, who will be in the lineup, and if they will get any practice time before the return. Right now, some players are ill but most have shown little or no symptoms. This should benefit the Stars as players will need less time to get back up to game speed. For those that have seen symptoms, it may be a tough hill to climb their way back.
“It will depend on when the league tells us we are able to play and how many bodies were able to have in practice,” Bowness said. “ It is a lot of unknown. Some of the guys have mild symptoms, some are a little sicker, so we’re going to need some time to get them back and give them some time to get in shape and then get the team play going. At this point, all we can control is what’s in front of us right now. We have 10 players to practice and were hoping the other guys get back soon. Again, I have no idea when that is going to be.”
There are two sides to this preparation for Dallas. For the coaches, they have to be on top of everything that arises from their lineup, game plan, getting the most out of their slim practices, or guiding the mental and physical health of their players.
“I think the coaching staff has been very good in the past of looking at every situation and at every opportunity to be prepared and I think they’ve learned from that,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said. “Whether that’s working with individuals or doing work off the ice, they’ll have the players ready. This is a resilient bunch, I know that, so I expect them to react well.”
For the players, they face their own set of challenges. First priority is their health. Whether they are very ill or asymptomatic, missing practice, not having access to the weight room, training room, or any skating time, will affect their game. On top of that, their mental health becomes a focus as they self isolate away from their friends, family, and teammates. In order for them to return as close to their best as possible, they need to stay on top of every aspect of their lives, a greater challenge than one might expect.
“You have a routine as far as staying sharp and next man up,” Tyler Seguin said. “Guys who are negative, we have to stay sharp because some players might only have one practice and might have to play a game. It’s so much unknown that you just have to stay focused on yourself and make sure you’re ready.”
If the Stars have any hope of making a playoff run in 2022, they will need to respond well when they return to play. Although there is a lot of hockey left to be played, they have put themselves in a mediocre position in the standings and will be playing catch-up for the remainder of the season.
As of now, the first game is still scheduled for Thursday (Jan. 6). However, with how little information we receive from the team and league about COVID, their future still remains unknown. Whenever they do return, they will be playing 53 games in less than four months. While that is nothing compared to the extremely condensed schedule they saw last year, it will certainly be a challenge. However, if there is any team that is up for the challenge, it feels like it might just be the Dallas Stars.
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!