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What to watch for as Stars head to Nashville for division road tilt

With his next victory, Ken Hitchcock will move into third on the all-time coaching wins list

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Dallas Stars (1-2-0) hit the road for another one-off road trip, their second of this young season, hoping to even up their record following their first win of the season, 4-2, over Detroit at home on Tuesday night.

Here are some things to consider heading into this game.

 

1. Hangover city

Hey, the Nashville Predators wouldn't be the first team to have a hangover in this jumping town that hosted perhaps the greatest hockey party of all time, as the Predators advanced to their first-ever Stanley Cup final last spring. 

The Preds fell in six games to Pittsburgh as the Penguins pulled off a rare back-to-back Cup run. As is often the case for teams that play long into the spring, it's been a bit of a struggle for the Predators to get back into a hockey groove as we head into the second week of the regular season. The Predators are, like Dallas, 1-2-0, but have given up an average of more than four goals per game. Their only win came Tuesday, in a wild come-from-behind 6-5 affair over Philadelphia.

So, there's still some stuff going on with Nashville that head coach Peter Laviolette would like to sort out sooner than later, although he thinks it's a bit early to be drawing too many lines from the long playoff run to the early start to his team's season.  

"I think after maybe seven games or 10 games, you can maybe have a better idea of trying to answer the question that you're trying to ask right now," Laviolette said Thursday morning. "We win tonight, we're back to .500 and, hopefully, taking steps in the right direction."

Video: Stars system will be tested in Nashville

 
2. Taking advantage of said hangover

For the first time in this young season, the Stars found a little finish and got a little puck luck in Tuesday's win. In general, the team has played well and are tied for fourth in the league in shots per game with 39.7. 

With the Predators missing two key defensemen in Ryan Ellis -- gone long-term with a knee injury -- and new captain Roman Josi out of the lineup for Thursday's game with a lower-body injury, the chance is there to exploit what is traditionally one of the Predators' strengths. 

"You would hope so," Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday morning. 

Still, it won't be easy. 

"Getting into their defensemen is tough because of their forwards," Hitchcock said. "Their forwards work so hard, they do so much work for their defensemen to get into their defensemen is a full-time job. Obviously everybody's going to see (the injuries) and go for a game plan that way, but easier said than done."

 

3. More of the same, please

Not much of a surprise, Hitchcock will keep the same lineup he employed in Tuesday's win. That means we'll see Remi Elie -- called up prior to Tuesday's game -- back in the lineup and, with veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis nursing a groin injury, Julius Honka will get a second straight game, likely playing with Jamie Oleksiak. 

The coaching staff tried to shelter Honka as much as possible in terms of defensive-zone starts and the like as he continues to try and mature as a defensive player. That will be a little more difficult on the road, with the Predators enjoying last change of personnel and, no doubt, Laviolette will try and exploit Honka's youthfulness. 

We were impressed with the forward trio of Martin Hanzal, who had his best game as a Star as he tries to shake off some injury issues that have blunted his adjustment in the early going this season, Mattias Janmark and Devin Shore. The line had two of the four goals, and generated quality chances with a hard forecheck. Thursday's game will be won in the neutral zone, Hitchcock predicted, and the Stars have been great at the possession game, allowing a league-low 25.3 shots per game. 

The challenge will be in seeing that continue in one of the most boisterous buildings in the NHL against the defending Western Conference champs. 

"We don't want to have a drop in energy from where we're building this thing to," Hitchcock said. "I think we're forging an identity, and that's what we want to see. We're going to get a real test whether we can play with our identity in this building and this team. To out-energize that team, and to out-work them -- that's a test."

Video: Ryan Johansen ready to face the Stars

 

4. Home sweet home -- err, maybe not

Nashville fans have long memories. They continue to boo former defenseman Ryan Suter every time he comes to town after signing as a free agent in Minnesota in the summer of 2012. And they remember the missteps of a young Alexander Radulov, who broke curfew during the 2012 playoffs and was benched by then head coach Barry Trotz. 

This won't be Radulov's first trip back to Nashville -- he played here as a member of the Montreal Canadiens last season -- but he understands the fans' prerogative. 

"I don't think it's going to affect me," he said. "You know you can't control those things. Fans they're great, every one. They're cheering for their team. They got something against me, but that's okay. I appreciate that. At the end of the day, we're all playing for the fans -- and that's the bottom line." 

As for his own evolution, Radulov continues to own the acts of a less mature version of himself. 
"It is what it is," he said. "What's happened in the past it's going to stay with me all my life. I'm going to carry that. It's normal. We all do some mistakes sometimes. But that's life. You can't change what's happened in the past." 

Radulov -- playing exclusively with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn -- has been a force at practice and during games, collecting two assists thus far. 

"I just think he's a hockey player," Hitchcock said. "I thought at the start, when he was first in the league, he was a little bit of a high-wire act. You never knew what you were going to get, but you know every shift what you're going to get from him (now). You're going to get an honest effort. You're going to get an effort filled with detail. He's just a hockey player. He understands what it takes to win. He's demanding of himself and he's also demanding of our team, which is the reason we wanted him."

 

5. A date with history

With his next win, Hitchcock will pass Hall-of-Fame coach Al Arbour, with whom he's currently tied, into third spot in the all-time coaching wins category. 

Hitchcock earned his 782nd career win, and his first in this his second go-round with the Stars, on Tuesday to tie the legendary Islanders coach.

Only Hall-of-Famer Scotty Bowman and current Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville remain ahead of Hitchcock in regular-season wins.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott Burnside on Twitter @OvertimeScottB and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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