Stars eager, anxious to return to ice after enjoying well-deserved rest

EDMONTON — Finally, Rick Bowness can see it.

“There is light at the end of the bubble.”

They always talk about how the Stanley Cup playoffs represent the proverbial marathon, as opposed to a sprint. But the fact that the Dallas Stars will celebrate eight weeks in the Edmonton bubble on Sunday lends a whole new dynamic with the optics of a few days of rest before the Stanley Cup Final begins.

Would a New York Islanders win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final and the ensuing two extra days off be the preferred result for the Stars? Or will they be waving the blue and white pompoms for Tampa, with the Dallas players starting to go a little stir crazy inside the bubble?

“You’re right on both of those,” Bowness began. “We did need a couple of days, We had some guys, they’re banged up and they’re tired. But speaking with a couple of veterans today (Thursday), they’re ready to get playing again.

“You know you’re going into the Final, and now you see the light at the end of the bubble. ‘OK, we’re only going to be here so many more days.’ (The break) was good for guys to re-set, get a little breather. But now the guys are anxious to get back on the ice and play.”

The “rest versus rust” conversation is one we’ve held every spring since the NHL playoffs began. But surprise, 2020 has changed that conversation completely.

On one hand, who doesn’t want to get home to their families? Players whose families were in Canada during the pause left for camp in Dallas 90 days ago. That’s a long time to be apart.

On the other hand, all you had to see was the spirit in the Stars room after they knocked out Vegas, and Anton Khudobin accepting his player of the game medal with the emphatic declaration: “We’re not going home!”

You might not want to stay. But you sure as hell don’t want to leave.

“We have a really hungry team. From young guy to old guy, to our coaching staff, our whole organization really wants to put everything out there for this last series,” said veteran Andrew Cogliano.

After 1,000 games, Cogliano will hear his name introduced at a Stanley Cup Final — whenever it begins — for the first time. The realization of that after Game 5 versus Vegas was almost too much for him to compute.

“You can’t really describe it at the time. You’re not processing what’s happening,” he said. “I’ve been close, playing in Game 6 and Game 7 in the Conference Final (with Anaheim), and I’ve been on the wrong end of that. Lots of emotion. It was a moment where I really felt something inside that I’ve been missing for a while. It was pretty cool.

“Something that I will never forget as a hockey player. Probably the highest, at this point, moment in my career.”

It’s been such a strange spring, er, fall in the hockey world.

Teams like Washington, Edmonton and St. Louis simply never found the level they had been playing at back in March when the league shut down due to COVID-19. Meanwhile others, like Vancouver, the Islanders and Dallas, somehow got better.

Today, the belief this Dallas team has in itself may be matched by Tampa or New York, but it can not be exceeded.

“There have been hiccups, times when it hasn’t been perfect. But it seems like we’ve always found a way to rise to the occasion and make things happen at the right time, through each series,” Cogliano said.

He was asked what it means that the Stars are “ready to win.”

“It just means that we’ve come a long way,” he said. “You reach this point, and the only option is to win. We’ve got a lot of guys on our team that are very hungry — guys who have been in Dallas for a long time, and guys who have played on other good teams that haven’t won. When you have a combination of that … it’s time to really push ourselves to make that next step. It’s our only option right now.”

On Thursday, Bowness sent his team to an arcade for a little “bowling and whatever else they have there. Get the out of the bubble for a bit of a mental break.”

If the bubble doesn’t make them too restless, a few days of hot tubs and massages can’t hurt, while the two Eastern teams beat the heck out of each other.

“We needed the rest,” Bowness said. “We’re taking advantage of it.”

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