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It won't count, but exhibition with Preds holds importance for Stars

Dallas expects a fiery tune-up against Nashville in its lone contest before next week's Stanley Cup Qualifiers

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

The bit, it seems, is pretty worn down.

In fact, it might even be bent or broken.

The Stars have been champing on it throughout this preseason of the NHL's "Return to Play," and have been waiting for a chance to compete in a real game. They'll get the next closest thing on Thursday when they play their one exhibition game.

Dallas will face the Nashville Predators at Rogers Place in Edmonton (3 p.m. CT; FS-SW, NHLN). It will be the first game on the arena ice in the Western Conference bubble, and will be the first game for the Stars against an opponent since the league paused play March 12.

The game will be played with no fans in the stands, so players are going to get to experience something they have never seen before.

"Everything is going to be new to us," Stars forward Jason Dickinson said Wednesday. "You're going to have to adjust to the limited atmosphere, you've got to create your own energy sometimes. Obviously, we only get one exhibition game for this. It's kind of going to be a quick feeling out process to really get your flow going and feel the game speed.

"Scrimmages are good, but it doesn't quite compare to a real game."

The Stars have been cautious with hits in their scrimmages, rubbing players against the board with just a little bit of thought to how it might cause injuries. They haven't gone full block on slap shots on special teams, and maybe have been a little conscientious when scrambling in tight against the goalies.

That all ends on Thursday. While the Stars have three round-robin games before they start the "first round" of the playoffs, Nashville will have to fight for its life in a best-of-five qualifying series against Arizona beginning Aug. 2. That means the exhibition game could be a pretty fiery warm-up.

"The intensity of the game is going to be very high," Stars interim coach Rick Bowness said. "That doesn't mean the execution is going to be there. The shots will be coming a lot harder, the traffic around the goalies is going to be a lot harder, so it's going to be harder for our players to get to the net and we've got to make it harder for the opposition to get to the net."

The Stars have been trying a few new things during their training camp. Bowness took over for Jim Montgomery in December, so he was working with what he had and tweaking things along the way while going 20-13-5. During the downtime while the league was paused, Bowness and the coaching staff tore apart the team's game in video work and concocted a plan to improve goal scoring (which ranks 26th at 2.58 per game). Bowness wants the defensemen to "activate" or take more chances offensively. To do that, the forwards have to be there to cover for the defensemen when they put the pressure on.

Bowness said he likes what he has seen in training camp, but that the first test is seeing it Thursday against the Predators.

"Seeing some things that we've 've been working on since the start of training camp, what we've been trying to do with the puck," Bowness said when asked what he would like to see. "Making sure that our defensive structure is where we need it to be. Making sure our forwards and defense are working together and that the trust between the forwards and defense (is there).

"There's going to be some mistakes and some misreads, but we're making sure our intensity is up there. We'll live with mistakes, but we want to make sure our structure is there."

Dickinson said the players are hoping they simply adjust to the next step in the process.

"We want to feel the game," he said. "We've got to come out and play with some pace, and work on the things we've worked on since we got back to camp and turn the things we worked on into habits and not just talk. Because it's easy to talk about it and watch video on it, but for us to get into the game, and actually do it in a live situation is going to be big for us."

Montgomery was a coach who liked to juggle lines from period to period and practice to practice. Bowness has shown he also can make adjustments, but that he likes to work from a more consistent base.

He has run a line of Joe Pavelski with Alexander Radulov and Mattias Janmark, every practice and said that was the most consistent line in camp. He also said he wants to keep together Radek Faksa with Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau, the team's checking line. He started camp with Tyler Seguin playing right wing on a line with young speedsters Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov. However, after a few scrimmages, Bowness said Seguin wasn't getting enough touches, so he switched him back to center on a line with Gurianov and Jamie Benn. Seguin and Benn have chemistry in the past, and Bowness would like to see that again.

That puts Hintz at left wing on a line with Dickinson and Corey Perry, and that will be an interesting line to watch.

On defense, the Stars have stuck with Esa Lindell and John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak and Miro Heiskanen, and Andrej Sekera and Stephen Johns, and the expectation is that's the deployment they want. While every defenseman has the green light for activation, those pairings seem to work that the man on the left can stay at home while the man on the right might be more inclined to go. We'll see.

The NHL is allowing players to dress an extra forward and an extra defenseman in the exhibition game to get them ready for play. The Stars will go with Justin Dowling as the forward and Taylor Fedun as the defenseman. While Bowness said each might have limited playing time, he added that each also is the first option in case there is injury and they need to see some ice.

Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin are expected to split time in net, and the Stars then will have three more days to get ready for their first round-robin game against Vegas on Aug. 3.

"We'll be prepared for whatever comes our way," Bowness said. "We're looking for certain things, but we'll adjust to whatever is happening."


Exhibition: Stars vs. Predators

Thursday, 3 p.m. CT

Where: Rogers Place, Edmonton, Alberta

TV: FOX Sports Southwest, NHL Network

Radio: None

Photo credit: Jeff Toates / Dallas Stars

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 and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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