Dallas Stars: Montgomery pushes buttons, team responds

During his brief tenure as head coach of the Dallas Stars, head coach Jim Montgomery knows when to send a message to his players.

Including playoffs, the Dallas Stars are 126 games in to the Jim Montgomery era. A lot has happened in that time, too. They were a middling playoff bubble bunch last season when team president Jim Lites went on his infamous, expletive-laced tirade regarding highly paid forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. That incident lit a fire under the team that culminated in a seven-game defeat in the Western Conference semifinals.

During that second half run, the then-rookie head coach really hit his stride. It seemed as though every lever pulled or button pushed yielded a positive result. Even in that playoff loss, when it was clear at times that the St. Louis Blues were the better team, the Stars came within a goal of advancing to the conference finals. In fact, they held a 3-2 series advantage before the Blues came back to win in seven games. Needless to say, optimism was high coming into this season.

So when the Stars left the gate this year in an inexplicable 1-7-1 funk, it was a bit of a head-scratcher. To say there was a panic among the fan base is an understatement. Worse yet, there were even grumblings that someone was about to lose their job over the club’s poor performance. It seemed inconceivable that Jim Montgomery’s tenure as head coach was in jeopardy, yet there they were.

But, on October 29th, just when the season seemed on the brink of collapsing, forward Alexander Radulov’s hat trick sparked a furious comeback in a 6-3 win over the Minnesota Wild. Radulov factors into the overall arc a little bit later, but from that point, the Stars went on a twelve-game point streak that included winning a franchise-best seven games in a row. That run vaulted the team from the bottoms of the conference table to legitimate playoff contention.

Through this all, Jim Montgomery has proven to be the ultimate tinkerer. He’s never been shy about juggling his forward and defense combos. And during their tear, most every move he made paid off. Whether it was putting center Justin Dowling on a line with Benn and Seguin, or utilizing winger Denis Gurianov’s speed to create mismatches and goals. In Dowling’s case, it provided a feel-good story when the twenty-nine-year-old Calgary native scored his first NHL goal against the Flames in front of family and friends. With Gurianov, the yield has come in the form of goals in consecutive games–both wins–that have helped pull the Stars out of their recent four-game winless streak.

Speaking of that four-game winless streak, the aforementioned Radulov plays into this one as well. During that stretch, he had taken a number of dumb penalties, one the costliest of which allowed Minnesota to tie the game late in the third period before the Wild ended up winning in a shootout on December 1st. The last game of that span was a woeful 5-1 loss in Winnipeg that Montgomery called their worst game of the season. Radulov was also in the sin bin for a Jets’ goal in that debacle.

That’s the thing about Radulov. When he’s engaged, he can still be an elite player. He’s a high-motor skater, and it can be infectious when he’s playing a team game. But at his worst, he’ll do stuff like take bad penalties or try to force the same play over and over. So in light of this, Montgomery did what he felt was best, and that was to sit Radulov during last Thursday’s rematch against the Jets, this time in Dallas.

Again, this tactic by Montgomery worked. The message got sent, and Radulov returned to the lineup with a goal and an assist in a pretty thorough thwacking of a very good New York Islanders squad on Saturday night. Moreover, it was a highly encouraging sign in light of the fact that the Stars had had a pretty rocky nine days prior to their modest two-game winning streak.

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It’s hard to keep in mind that Jim Montgomery is going through a lot of on-the-job training as he continues to gain his bearings. His tenure has been marked by a measure of streaky performances from his club. But he also does seem to be able to extract a lot out of his team when they need a jump start, and that will be critical as this team jockeys for playoff position.