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'I can't wait': Montgomery ready to take on greatest challenge of career

The Stars' first-year bench boss loves to coach - and now he has an opportunity to shine on the NHL's grandest stage

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Jim Montgomery loves the art of coaching.

Whether it was long talks with his dad, Jim Sr., who coached him as a kid and was a constant influence growing up; or serving as captain under coach Shawn Walsh on the 1993 NCAA champion Maine Black Bears; or interacting with his own players at the University of Denver, where he won an NCAA title as a bench boss; Montgomery has always been intrigued by the process of helping athletes reach their potential.

So it comes as no surprise that after his first season in the NHL, he's pretty fired up to test himself in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

 

[QUEST FOR THE CUP: From tickets to official watching parties, get the latest information from Stars Playoff Central]

 

"I can't wait," Montgomery said of tonight's Game 1 against the Nashville Predators (8:30 p.m. CT; FS-SW, USA Network; KTCK). "We're going to play the same team possibly seven times, so that changes a lot of your strategy and mentality. I love the playoffs, I love the inner battle, the chess game of adjustments, just being on your toes at all times and being prepared to give your players every opportunity to have success. … That's fun."

Montgomery has tried to do that this season, and said the challenges have been great. But he said looking back on the learning process in going from an NCAA coach to a head coach in the NHL has been incredible.

"When it's your first time going through something -- a new league, getting to know new players, a new staff -- you can't predict the unexpected," Montgomery said. "You try to predict and you try to prepare, but as much as you want to, you can't predict how players will react, how the adversity will affect everyone.

"That was the growth curve I had to go through, and now I think I'll be better prepared in years to come just for going through this first season."

Video: Taking reins, Montgomery hopes to lead Stars to glory

Montgomery loves to coach inside the game. He loves to tweak lines and test theories, and change the game. If things aren't going well, he'll scramble everything. If the team is down a goal or up a goal, he'll react with different combinations.

"I just think that you can feel how things are going, and it's my job then to react to that," Montgomery said.

Now, that can become a challenge in the NHL. Often times, players like to stick with the same linemates. Often times, chemistry is built over a season and not just a period. Often times, you can outsmart yourself with all of your tweaks.

In fact, midway through the season, the Stars were dealing with a lot of inconsistency, and Montgomery had to ask himself if he was contributing to that with his shuffling. But in looking at the Stars, the coach decided that the real issue was how they were playing and not who they were playing with, so he stuck to his guns.

Now, he has a team that understands that line changes are coming and you better be ready.

"I've been doing it all year. I asked a couple of players and they said, 'Yeah, we're just used to it.'" Montgomery said. "They understand the intent behind it. Depending on who we play, we figure there are line combinations that give us favorable matchups."

Stars center Tyler Seguin said the players understand Montgomery and know that they could be playing with any number of linemates at any given time.

Video: Previewing the Stars vs. Predators First Round series

"It's what we do," Seguin said. "We go in with a game plan, but we know it can change, so you just have to be prepared for anything."

And that could be a powerful tool in the playoffs, especially with the Stars starting on the road. Home teams get the last line change, and thus have a better ability to match up against what an opposing coach wants to do. Because Montgomery can move his pieces around, he's much harder to match against.

"When you look back at this whole season, I think he's done a good job of putting it all together, finding the most out of individuals," Seguin said. "It's a lot more of a team concept this year. Especially last year, it might have been a little too much of the big dogs and getting the big boys going. But it's a team game and you need everybody, and Monty has brought his college background of being a team environment."

That has allowed the Stars to not only adjust to the opposition, but to get into a routine of shifts under 40 seconds and changing lines all at once. When they are at their best, they are rolling lines relentlessly and handing off energy to each teammate.

"It takes a commitment. It takes everybody playing on the same page and saying, 'Hey, this is the game plan we want to play,' " forward Jason Dickinson said. "If you stick with the plan, you're going to get right back out there in a short amount of time and keep the rhythm going, so it's good for everyone."

And that's another part of the coaching process that has been fun for Montgomery this season. He has had to learn about different personalities, different habits, different ways a player reacts to the game and to his decisions.

"One of the things I've realized is I'm a millennial coach, that's the only group I coached before this year. But I can balance that with what I learned growing up, what I learned from my career and now learning from these players. It's been good for me this year," Montgomery said.

Video: Jim Montgomery on his first season as a head coach

"I think they absolutely know we're in it together, and that's the biggest thing that I've found has worked for me. The relationship building throughout the year has been a positive in that we are here, we know we're in it together, and we can move forward."

And forward should be a pretty fun place. Montgomery said he's trying to anticipate every nuance in the playoffs, every potential issue that might come up. At the same time, he knows he just went through a season where what he predicted might happen changed almost every day.

And that's the beauty of coaching, in his eyes.

"It's a great test," he said. "Who rises to the challenge, who needs more support? There are going to be momentum swings, but emotional swings, too. How do we handle it, and how do we learn from it?

"That's what it's all about."


 

Game 1: Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators

Where: Bridgestone Arena
When: Tonight, 8:30 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports Southwest, USA Network
Radio: The Ticket 1310-AM, 96.7-FM

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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