Knights were on a roll and Stars struggled before NHL halted
By STEPHEN HAWKINS
The Dallas Stars were in a miserable stretch when the NHL season came to a sudden and unexpected stop 4 1/2 months ago. Vegas was playing some of its best hockey after a coaching change.
Both now have the same chance of being the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs when plays resumes in an unprecedented season interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
"You definitely have to change your mindset. I like the fact that we're starting with a round robin and moving into a four out of seven," Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer said. "That feels like more of a normal transition to me. We're excited to get some games going here."
As two of the top four teams in the Western Conference standings, Vegas and Dallas play Monday to start their part in a week-long round robin with St. Louis and Colorado to determine the seedings of those teams when the regular 16-team playoff bracket gets started. Also in Edmonton, eight other teams have to jump right into best-of-five series to determine who advances.
"These games will be to get up to speed and there will be some intensity to them and trying to work out any kinks," veteran Stars center Joe Pavelski said. "Just knowing that we've got to get our game to the highest speed we can, because these other teams will be in full-go mode. And we've got to kind of walk right into that."
Vegas, currently without leading scorer Max Pacioretty, won 11 of its last 13 games before the mid-March stoppage. It was part of an overall 15-5-2 stretch since DeBoer replaced Gerard Gallant, the coach who led the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup final in the franchise's inaugural season two years ago.
Dallas was 0-4-2 in their last six games before the break. But like every other team, it had time to reset so scoring threats Tyler Seguin and captain Jamie Benn, and the veteran goalie duo of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin should be ready.
"It's pretty much a new season for us," center Radak Faksa said. "I think the biggest advantage for us is we've got four lines that can play. And that's what you need for the playoffs."
STAYING IN VEGAS
Pacioretty stayed behind after sustaining a minor injury during training camp. It's unclear how long the team's leading scorer will be out, but DeBoer seems optimistic the 31-year-old will be ready after the round robin.
DeBoer said the club left Pacioretty in Las Vegas because it wasn't clear what the rehab situation would be in Edmonton. DeBoer said multiple times the absence wasn't coronavirus-related, and added there wasn't a concern about a quarantine keeping him out of a first-round playoff series.
"As soon as he gets close, he'll come in here," DeBoer said. "I anticipate he's probably going to travel in here almost identically to how we came in here and with a negative test on a private plane, I can't imagine there'd be many holdups."
Bishop, who is in his 13th NHL season, has a 2.12 goals-against-average in 49 career playoff games. He has started 43 games with a 2.50 GAA this season for the Stars, with Khudobin starting the other 26.
Marc-Andre Fluery, part of three Stanley Cup titles in 13 seasons with Pittsburgh, has been the goaltender for all 27 playoff games in Vegas history. He has a 2.77 GAA in 49 games this season.
Fluery missed the first three practices when the Golden Knights went back to camp. The Knights also have veteran Robin Lehner, who played in three games after being acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.
"I think my plan here is both guys are going to play through the round robin," DeBoer said. "I think coming off a four-month pause, in order to make sure that we get everybody up to speed and are fair and have all the information at our disposal when we start the playoffs, that's the right thing to do."
The Stars also had an in-season coaching change, but for a different reason than Vegas.
Dallas is 20-13-5 since assistant coach Rick Bowness' promotion in December to interim head coach. It came after second-year coach Jim Montgomery was fired and later went to alcohol rehabilitation. The 65-year-old Bowness has coached in 2,266 NHL games, 501 as a head coach, and has now been on a bench in five different decades.
AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report.
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Updated July 28, 2020