Dallas Stars Coach Ken Hitchcock saw so much of the Stanley Cup this summer he almost started to get sick of the trophy his team worked so hard to win. Everywhere he went the Cup was there. Hitchcock loved winning the thing--it was the culmination of his dreams--but the ceremonies and parties seemed endless. All the emotion was wrung out of the event.
Now, less than two months into the 1999-2000 season, the summer of the Cup seems like a distant memory. The Stars team that faces the Washington Capitals tonight at MCI Center hardly resembles the one that circled the ice with that prize after defeating the Buffalo Sabres in six games in June. The Stars brought in several new players and have been pummeled by injuries, much like the Capitals last season, who struggled after reaching the finals in 1998 for the first time in franchise history.
Part of it is worse play, part of it is a Stanley Cup hangover, part of it is just bad luck. "This is not the same team that finished against Buffalo, not even close," Hitchcock said. "We're an entirely different team. We don't look the same on the ice. I feel like we're starting to come out of it now, but we've got a long way to go."
The Stars enter tonight's game with an 8-8-1 record, last in the Pacific Division. Once the NHL's quintessential defensive team, they have surrendered more goals than they have scored. They have squandered leads and suffered critical lapses in play. But they also have had little time to jell because so many key players have been out with injuries.
The injuries began opening night, when star center Mike Modano was run into from behind in a gruesome incident. They also lost Joe Nieuwendyk, the playoff MVP, and Darryl Sydor, a top offensive defensemen, in that game. Richard Matvichuk, a physically dominating defenseman, has missed considerable time, and yesterday was placed on the injured reserve list with a sore knee. As many as eight players have been out at one time.
"We kind of got into survival mode and now we're starting to stabilize and establish some chemistry and cohesiveness and bond as a team," Hitchcock said. "But until we get some players back, it's very hard to evaluate our team."
Capitals Coach Ron Wilson can relate. His team set an unofficial record with 511 man-games lost to injury last season and went through a slow start after enjoying playoff success.
"Whether you want to admit it or not, you suffer a little bit of a letdown," Wilson said. "And the regular season games at the beginning of the season don't seem to feel as important as the Stanley Cup finals. You can make no changes at all and things can go sour. The games don't feel as important and the other teams are more ready to play you. . . . And I think in your own mind you think you can just go out there and the game is going to go your way."
The Stars changed their roster in an effort to combat complacency. They declined to re-sign unrestricted defenseman Craig Ludwig, and he retired, taking a scouting job with the Stars. They made no effort to retain gritty veteran free agents Pat Verbeek and Dave Reid because the team wanted to get younger and quicker. Benoit Hogue, Tony Hrkac and Brent Severyn also were not offered new contracts. In addition, the Stars traded talented backup goalie Roman Turek to St. Louis to avoid losing him to expansion.
Youngsters such as Jon Sim and Blake Sloan, who played sparingly last season, are playing a lot. So are Juha Lind and Roman Lyashenko. Defenseman Jamie Pushor was acquired from Atlanta. A franchise that prized stability and the patient hand of General Manager Bob Gainey already has used 29 players this season. The adjustment hasn't been easy.
"That's been tough for some of the guys because for the last three or four years this has basically been the same group," Hitchcock said. ". . . We've been frustrated by that, and we had to get over that frustration and it took some time to understand that we have a whole new group here and our job is to start all over.
"We went through the turning-back stage and now there's no turning back. The team we have is the team we have. This is the Dallas Stars and we're starting to slowly learn that and play our game and get the details back in our game. We have a really good chance to be a very good hockey team, but we're a long ways away right now."
Capitals Notes: With four defensemen injured, the Capitals recalled Nolan Baumgartner from Portland.