Last season, Jim Montgomery was trying to lead his Denver Pioneers to a second straight NCAA Division I hockey championship. They lost to Ohio State 5-1 in the Midwest Regional final.
Beginning Wednesday night in Nashville, the former University of Maine All-American and Hobey Baker Award finalist will begin the quest for the Stanley Cup as the first-year head coach of the Dallas Stars.
Dallas (43-32-7) finished fourth in the Western Conference’s Central Division and earned the first wild card spot. The Stars take on Central Division champ Nashville (47-29-6) at 9:30 p.m. to start their best-of-seven series.
Three other former Black Bear players are involved in the NHL playoffs.
Dallas goaltender Ben Bishop (27-15-2) is having a career season for the Stars with a league-leading .934 save percentage and a 1.98 goals-against that ranks second best. The save percentage is the best in franchise history.
Winger Gustav Nyquist (22 goals, 38 assists in 81 games), who was traded by Detroit to San Jose, has had a productive season. The Sharks host the Vegas Golden Knights in its opener Wednesday night.
And Columbus head coach John Tortorella leads the Blue Jackets (47-31-4) against President’s Cup-winning Tampa Bay on Friday in Tampa.
Montgomery, 49, admitted that he did not realize how difficult it was just to make the playoffs.
“You have to overcome a lot. Only half the teams make the playoffs. There are a lot of good teams who aren’t playing,” Montgomery said.
Dallas went 12-6-1 over its past 17 games.
Five teams with winning records, including Montreal (44-30-8) did not make the playoffs.
Dallas endured the second-most man-games lost to injury in the NHL, and Montgomery was the Stars’ third head coach in three years after Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock.
“Building trust was a lot harder than I expected for a number of reasons,” Montgomery said.
He said the biggest adjustment from coaching at the college level to the NHL is the lack of preparation time in the NHL.
“In college, you have four days to prepare for a Friday-Saturday series,” Montgomery said. “You’re able to go over every zone, every faceoff, special teams. Here, you’ll play four games in six days, so you won’t be able to even have a practice.”
He has learned to be efficient with his time after trying to survive on four hours of sleep per night during his first 19 or 20 games.
“I was also trying to build relationships with the players and my coaching staff,” he said.
“It took awhile to really understand how to push buttons with the players and how to get consistency [from them].”
Montgomery has always prided himself in developing teams that played a high-pressure game with good puck possession, teams that are hard to play against.
“We’ve become a much better offensive team, and we’ve played our best hockey in the third period, which wasn’t the way in the first half,” Montgomery said.
Goaltending is crucial in the playoffs, and Montgomery knows he has one of the league’s best in Bishop, who despite some injuries has seven shutouts in 46 games. Backup Anton Khudobin (16-17-5. 2.57, .923) has been solid.
“Ben has been incredible. If he had been able to play 10 to 15 more games, he probably would win the Vezina Trophy [league’s best goaltender],” Montgomery said. “That’s amazing. He’s been our best player.”
Montgomery said the series with Nashville should be great as the Predators won the season series 3-2, including two overtime wins.
“When you have the best goaltending in the league, you always have a chance,” he said.