While Stars coach Lindy Ruff and team captain Jamie Benn were earning and celebrating a grittily-won gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, most of the rest of the team was preparing for the stretch run of the 2013-2014 NHL campaign by resuming workouts on Feb. 19.
A stretch run, mind you, that just might help them earn the franchise’s first Stanley Cup playoff berth since the Spring of 2008.
The Stars moved into 8th place in the NHL’s Western Conference after defeating visiting Phoenix, 2-1, at American Airlines Center on Feb. 8 to finish the pre-Olympic break on a winning note. The two conference rivals are 27-21-10 for 64 points, and Dallas has clinched the tiebreaker with two victories over Phoenix, with both teams facing off just once more this season.
One of the NHL’s hottest teams prior to the Olympics, Dallas went on a 6-2-1 run to claim eight of a possible 10 points in their last five games and 14 of 18 potential points in their last nine pre-Olympic performances.
In Ruff’s absence, assistant coaches Curt Fraser and James Patrick ran the team’s practices, as the team prepares to hit the ice gliding when they host Carolina in their first post-break action on Thursday.
“You don’t want [the players] to get out of shape, and I don’t think our guys have,” said Patrick. “Everyone knows what’s at stake.”
In addition to Benn and Ruff, the Stars were missing forward Valeri Nichushkin and goalie Kari Lehtonen, who represented Russia and Finland, respectively, in the Olympics.
“I think one week [off] was a perfect amount,” said goalie Dan Ellis. “Once you get up to a certain level during the season with your conditioning and your focus, it’s tough to take that break.”
Dallas resumes play five points behind Minnesota in the wild card race and 15 behind Colorado, the Central Division’s 3rd place team. The top three teams in the Central and Pacific Divisions are guaranteed post-season berths, followed by the next two highest point producing wild card sextets.
In addition to the Coyotes, Vancouver (63 points), Winnipeg (62) and Nashville (60) are all within striking distance of Dallas.
The Stars, who spent most of the early season on the road, will get a good taste of home cooking with seven of their next nine games at American Airlines Center. After Carolina, the Stars will host Tampa Bay and Buffalo before traveling to Columbus. They will return home for games against Vancouver, Minnesota and Columbus, again, before taking a one-game trip to St. Louis. Then, following a home game against the Flames, Dallas will embark on a three-game road swing to Winnipeg and to the East Coast at Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.