As miserable as a Game 7 loss can make a player, Nathan MacKinnon couldn’t help but smile when he embraced Rick Bowness at the end of the handshake line.
“Go get it. Go get it,” the Hart Trophy finalist told the oldest bench boss in the league mid-hug.
“We’re all cheering for you back home now, eh?”
A fellow Maritimer, the 65-year-old Bowness has delayed joining the likes of off-season neighbours MacKinnon and Sidney Crosby at their respective lake homes on Grand Lake, a half-hour’s drive north from Halifax.
Six decades into the game he loves, the affable Bowness is busy with his nearest, bestest chance to hoist the Stanley Cup -- a dream that will inch one stage closer to reality if his Stars, up 3-1 in the Western final, can close out the Vegas Golden Knights with three match points this week.
“Losing sucks. But losing to such a great person in Rick makes it a little easier, I guess,” MacKinnon explained. “He’s a class act.
“Everyone is rooting for him. Everyone is wishing him the best. Myself included.”
Bowness ran his first NHL bench back in 1989, when he worked his way up from the minors for the first incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets, and has coached 65 players who entered the bubbles this summer, a group spanning 18 of the 24 post-season teams.
So regarded and connected is the hockey lifer, it would come as a greater surprise if MacKinnon didn’t know “Bones.”
Heck, even Bowness’s own boss, Stars GM Jim Nill, used to play for him back in the ’80s.
“Hey, listen: He’s the main reason I came to Dallas [from Tampa Bay] in the first place two summers ago,” Bowness says of Nill. “His character, his honesty -- you know where you stand. He’s an honest, hardworking man committed to winning.”
Although the two friends/co-workers will stick to the plan of sitting down upon season’s end, hopefully with a Stanley Cup full of Bud Light on the table, and talking contract, Nill made it clear on a Hockey Night in Canada interview Saturday that he wants to erase the “interim” tag from Bowness’s job title.
“He’s earned it, and I hope that down the road he wants to be the head coach,” Nill revealed. “He’s got these guys playing the way they should play.”
How they should play is selfless. It’s hard-hitting, shot-blocking and special-teams-feasting. (And, yes, it relies, sometimes too heavily, on the heroics of No. 2-turned-No.1 goalie Anton Khudobin.) It’s that “2-1 mentality” Bowness speaks of, with pride, that allows the Stars to be comfortable in tight contests and tighter series.
Ignore the attractive 2020 free agent coaching class, the Gerard Gallants and Peter Laviolettes and Bruce Boudreaus and Mike Babcocks.
Give Bowness the full-time job.
Just ask the Washington Capitals what happens when you fiddle with a smart fit.
Bowness has his group leading a series 3-1 despite the total score being locked at 6-6, that has Dallas within 60 minutes of its first final berth in 21 years despite a minus-3 goal differential in the playoffs.
“We weren't supposed to beat Calgary. We weren't supposed to beat Colorado. We weren't supposed to be where we are today. So, give our guys a lot of credit for their resiliency and their ability to rise above the expectations for our team,” Bowness said Monday.
“We’re not intimidated by the situation. We're not intimidated by not playing well. We're not intimidated by falling one or two goals behind. We believe in ourselves, and we will overcome those obstacles.”
The obstacle Bowness hurdled this season was getting blindsided by a mid-season promotion when Stars coach Jim Montgomery was dismissed from a good team due to struggles with sobriety.
At first, Bowness -- at once an old-school hockey guy and players’ coach -- didn’t feel it necessary to tinker with Montgomery’s system. Hey, the Stars were winning.
But as the Stars skidded into March, going 0-4-2 in their final six games before the pause, Bowness used quarantine to re-examine, then maximize his inherited roster.
Structurally, Dallas had played well enough to win most of those games, but the goals just weren’t there.
Bowness decided he had to make better use of the “elite guys on the back end,” and push Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg to jump up in the play. He also stressed puck protection in the offensive zone, encouraging his big-bodied forwards to wheel around, drive for high-percentage shots and strive for second chances.
The results are plain.
Dallas is scoring 2.95 goals per game against stiff Western powers, up from 2.58 in the regular season. Its power play has leapt from 21.1 per cent to 25.8 per cent and is more effective than any team standing.
Heiskanen’s 22 points lead all blueliners in the playoffs, Klingberg has 14 points in 19 appearances, and Jamie Oleksiak is out here scoring breakaway goals on one of the sport’s hottest goalies.
“We’re reaping the rewards right now of him having a chance to put his stamp on this team. I’ve been very impressed,” says Nill, crediting his coach’s diligence through the pause. “For what he’s done right now, he’s made a strong statement. The most important thing is watching how the players react.
“Rick has the full support of the players, and that’s very important.”
They listened when, in Game 4, Bowness instructed them to not get frustrated by a questionable penalty call that gave Vegas a lengthy 5-on-3 power-play. And they don’t kick up a fuss when a respected pro like Andrew Cogliano gets healthy-scratched.
“Bonesy’s awesome,” Oleksiak says. “He’s an easy guy to talk to. There's always an open line of communication with him. He's a very positive guy, and he's obviously got a lot of knowledge in the league.
“He's been around for a while, and he's not afraid to tell you how it is and if you need to pick up. He's always there with positive feedback. He's definitely a guy you want to play hard for.”