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Stars taking advantage of first real break in schedule

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The NHL schedule is a strange animal sometimes. Already, barely halfway through the season, the Dallas Stars have enjoyed one six-game homestand and two more of three games each, as well as a two different stretches where they have played two away games, come home for one contest and headed right back on the road for two more, all in multiple timezones. 

Through it all, they have continued to impress, especially following the chunk of their schedule they just completed, which was probably the most challenging of the season. 

After suiting up for a whopping 29 games over a span of 57 days, which works out to just over a game every other day, the Stars are in the midst of their first three-day break in two months and entering a span where they will lace ‘em up just six times in a span of 20 days. 

Of course, the Stars excelled during the hectic portion of their schedule, posting a stellar 18-6-5 mark over those 29 games, so perhaps they thrived under the unrelenting pressure to perform. 

But ask any player if they’d rather keep riding that momentum that has seen them spend the last 49 days atop the Pacific Division standings, and they’ll all say that they’d much rather have the time off.

“I think it’s good for the guys to get away for a little bit, get your mind off it because you’ve been playing a lot of hockey in December and the start of January here,” noted defenseman Jeff Woywitka, who has skated in each of the last 25. “I think we’re looking forward to a couple of days of good practice and get back to the basics and keep working on things that you can’t work on when you don’t have the practice days. It’ll be good to get the rest and we need to take advantage of it.”

Having that extra practice time is crucial, because during a stretch like that, in which the Stars had three sets of back-to-back games and a significant amount of travel in between, they hardly ever had a chance to actually work on things. Most of the off-days were spent either traveling or resting; rarely did they actually have a productive practice.

So Wednesday at their primary headquarters at the Dr Pepper Arena in Frisco, the Stars tried something different, taking the opportunity to focus on puck-handling skills and shooting techniques. Then, on Thursday at the Farmers Branch Dr Pepper StarCenter, they got back to a normal practice session and followed that up with another spirited practice Friday in Frisco.

“First of all, it’s great for us to be able to practice three days in a row,” coach Marc Crawford declared. “We utilized the first day as a skills-sharpening practice. We had a shooting instructor out there for some of the guys and you don’t get very often an opportunity to have a group of practices all together, so both (Thursday) in Farmers Branch and on Friday when we’re practicing back here, we utilize those days to reinforce our systems play, really trying to focus in on our forecheck, our defensive zone coverage, our neutral zone play and (Wednesday) was an opportunity for us to sharpen our skills, to work on our skills and to do it in an upbeat and favorable manner. I thought the guys got more out of it than if we had a practice where we tried to work on systems-orientated stuff, where I think fatigue would have probably set in and we wouldn’t have gotten as much out of them.” 
“It was a light day, get a workout in, we haven’t been able to do that much with our schedule and a little bit of skills out there, to handle the puck,” added center Brad Richards regarding Wednesday’s unique session that saw the coaches set up elaborate obstacle courses on the ice with cones and sticks providing impediments to stick-handle around. “When you play so many games like we did in December, you don’t get to work on any skills like that too often. You’re just saving your energy for games, so it was fun.”

And as Woywitka implied, perhaps even more important than the physical rest for the players is the mental respite the three days off provides, particularly for goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who has already played 33 games this season and has started 11 of the last 14. He’s only had one year in his career (2006-07) in which he’s suited up for more than 48 contests in a single season, so his break has been well-deserved. 
“It’s definitely a rest for your mind,” said Lehtonen, whose 18 wins is just two shy of the second-most he’s totaled during his seven-year NHL career. “Games are tougher for your mind, you have to be ready all the time. It’s definitely something we were looking forward to. You can try some new things at practice, too. You have a couple of more days to get back to game mode. It’s a good thing to have and I think it makes everybody more fresher once we start playing again.” 

The puck drops again for the Stars on Saturday night, when Lehtonen’s former club, the Atlanta Thrashers, visit the American Airlines Center for a 7 pm start. 

Dallas then hosts division rival Los Angeles on Monday before heading out on their first ‘Western Canada road trip’ of the year, traveling to Edmonton next Thursday (Jan. 20) and Calgary Jan. 21 before facing Vancouver on Jan. 24. They’ll return to Texas to face the Oilers again on Jan. 26 and then everyone except Richards and linemate Loui Eriksson will have five full days off during the NHL’s All-Star break before battling Western Conference-leading Vancouver at home on Feb. 1. 

Only time will tell if the Stars can keep their recent momentum going during the relatively mild upcoming stretch, but one has to believe the rest can only help their cause.

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