FRISCO, Texas – The irony is not lost on Lindy Ruff as his Dallas Stars prepare for their second-round playoff series against Ken Hitchcock and the St. Louis Blues.
These coaches have a much different relationship after two Olympic gold medals together with Team Canada.
"I learned a lot, learned actually at the end to like him," Ruff said, acknowledging the two had some philosophical arguments when they roomed together in tight quarters.
Long before they were on their home country's coaching staff for the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, Hitchcock was coach of the Stars when the franchise won its only Stanley Cup in 1999, complete with a disputed clinching goal in triple overtime of Game 6 against Ruff's Buffalo Sabres. Then came a first-round playoff series in 2006, when Hitchcock was with Philadelphia, when they two had a spat after a fight-filled Game 2. Ruff accused the Flyers of playing like "idiots" and Hitch responded with some expletives.
"We had a rough start with the Stanley Cup Final there and smoothed it over," Hitchcock said. "We became good friends through two Olympic games. Being roommates with a guy for two and a half weeks, you get to know a lot about a guy."
Ruff is now in his third season coaching Dallas, the top seed in the Western Conference just ahead of the Blues. The Stars are hosting a second-round opener for the first time since 2003, a year after Hitchcock was fired during a season in which they missed the playoffs. Game 1 between these two fast, hard-hitting teams is Friday night.
"Yeah, it's a full about-face. I like where our team is at, I like where our team has got to and I'm sure he's sitting in the same place," Ruff said. "It's not about him or I. It's about how the teams are going to play."
Dallas survived a frenzied finish for a 5-4 win in its Game 6 clincher at Minnesota after taking a 4-0 lead into the third period last Sunday. The Blues are in the second round for the first time in four seasons after a seven-game thriller against the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champion.
"Just think what this team is capable of," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "Whether it was Chicago or anybody else, I think we showed a lot of resilience out there in that series."
Some things to watch in what the Stars expect to be a physical series against the bigger Blues:
St. Louis won four of the five regular-season matchups, though two of the victories were in overtime and a third came in a shootout. Each team also posted a 3-0 victory.
Dallas and St. Louis both routinely used two goalies in the regular season, and all four goalies won at least 23 games. The Stars have kept that pattern in the postseason, switching goalies after both first-round losses. But the Blues have gone exclusively with Brian Elliott, who had at least 30 saves in six games against Chicago.
"It's experience. I think you soak it in through osmosis," Elliott said. "It's not the kind of stuff you can write down. It's those feelings, it's those rising to the occasions."
The Stars' Kari Lehtonen had a 2.27 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in four games against the Wild; Antti Niemi had a 3.36 GAA and .877 save percentage in two games.
"Both goaltenders got us wins inside the series, a lot like the regular season," Ruff said. "They both held up well when it comes right down to it."
OTT TO KNOW
Left wing Steve Ott, in his third season with the Blues, played 566 of his 795 career regular-season games and 34 of his 51 playoff games while with Dallas for 10 years (2002-12).
"I have friends over there," Ott said. "It's no hidden message, but there's no friends when the playoff series starts, and I would expect the same thing from them."
Dallas All-Star center Tyler Seguin still isn't skating after missing the last 10 regular-season games and playing only Game 2 against Minnesota. Seguin had his left Achilles tendon cut by a skate March 17, and apparently suffered a different but related lower-body injury when getting back in a game after missing a month.
STARS TO WATCH
Jamie Benn, the Stars captain and their other All-Star center, led all NHL players with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in the first round of the playoffs. Jason Spezza, another Stars center, was second with nine points (four goals, five assists). Left wing Jaden Schwartz led the Blues with seven points (three goals, four assists). St. Louis star forward Vladimir Tarasenko will be closely watched after his ice time was down against Chicago; he appeared to confront Hitchcock at one point, though the coach shrugged it off and said simply that Tarasenko plays a demanding game.