DENVER — If adversity builds character and road trips create bonding, the Stars are in the right place.
Dallas lost a 5-3 game at Colorado on Tuesday to start a five-game road trip on the wrong skate.
What’s worse, defenseman Stephen Johns left the game with concussion symptoms and goalie Ben Bishop was pulled in the second period after allowing three goals on 17 shots.
Suddenly, a back-to-back in Edmonton and Calgary on Thursday and Friday looks much more challenging for the 5-4-0 Stars.
“By no means did we put out the right effort to win a hockey game,” said captain Jamie Benn, who had a goal and two assists. “These guys came ready to play and we weren’t sharp enough early on. They deserved to win that game.”
The Stars couldn’t build on an early lead and then just seemed to find chaos. Bishop had been a rock in a recent four-game winning streak, but he seemed to get happy feet.
Still, the veteran goalie said “there was no reason” to pull him and that he was “not happy with the decision.”
Hitchcock said the reality of the situation was he just wanted to wake up his team after a slow start.
“It was time to make a change. We were slow and dozey across the board,” Hitchcock said. “The whole team needed a wakeup call. It has nothing to do with Ben Bishop, it has to do with wake up, let’s get playing. I’ll do the same with any other goaltender.”
Still, both defense and goalie were shaky at times.
When Gabriel Landeskog carried a puck in down the right side, it started the Stars defense scrambling, and Bishop tried to poke check the puck away to safety.
Instead, he sent it right to Matt Neito, and Nieto — who finished with a hat trick) — sort of knocked it past him as he struggled to regain his positioning.
That tied the score at 1-1 after one period, but it was clear Dallas was not playing the way Hitchcock had been preaching.
Two minutes into the second period, Bishop got caught behind the net and couldn’t get back in front quickly enough to stop Nieto from scoring his second of the game.
Then, Julius Honka had a giveaway that led to a frenetic shift in the Stars’ end, and Bishop ended up diving forward to try to stop Landeskog, who patiently carried the puck around Bishop and flipped it into the net.
“We played slow. We were light on the puck, we didn’t play through people,” Hitchcock said.
Kari Lehtonen came on in relief and looked pretty good against an aggressive Colorado attack, stopping the first eight shots he saw.
However, with time running down in the second period, Lehtonen overcommitted to a Tyson Barrie slap shot that went hard off the end boards and rebounded all the way out to Mark Barberio at the left point.
Barberio unleashed a tremendous shot, and Lehtonen couldn’t get back across the crease in time, as the eventual game-winning goal slipped past him with 9.8 seconds left in the second period.
Bishop will likely be back as the starter in goal Thursday against the Oilers, but Johns could miss some time.
The Stars have two defensemen — Jamie Oleksiak and Greg Pateryn — who are ready to come in and Hitchcock could decide to use both, as Honka struggled at times.
But whatever happens, they need to respond to a rough performance, or this road trip could get pretty seriously dangerous pretty fast.
“It’s a learning lesson,” Benn said. “Just because you win four in a row doesn’t mean you’re going to come in here and they’re going to give it to us.”