In controversial college arena, Stars’ NHL caliber play was exceedingly apparent

TEMPE, Ariz. — On a night when little else was NHL caliber, the Stars made sure they were.

Dallas scored four goals in the first period, and cruised to a 7-2 win over the Coyotes in the team’s first trip to Mullett Arena in Tempe on Thursday night. Jason Robertson scored twice, as Denis Gurianov, Wyatt Johnston, Ty Dellandrea, Jamie Benn and Jani Hakanpää each added goals.

Scott Wedgewood made 29 saves in his return to Arizona for the first time since the Coyotes traded him to Dallas at the trade deadline.

The Stars improved to 7-3-1 on the season and will face the Oilers on Saturday afternoon in Edmonton. The win built on the solid start the Stars have gotten off to under coach Pete DeBoer, but most of the hoopla surrounding Thursday’s date with the Coyotes centered on their new building.

Mullett Arena is the smallest venue in the NHL. It’s also the newest. And perhaps the most controversial.

Built on the Arizona State campus as the new home of the Sun Devils hockey program, the arena now houses the Coyotes temporarily until the franchise can build a permanent home in the Phoenix area. Cast out of their previous home in distant Glendale, the Coyotes settled in Tempe, in a college rink that seats 4,600 people.

“I’m excited about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve been going to Phoenix for a long time, and I think the environment in that rink, despite its size, that’ll get everybody excited. A full rink at 5,000 is better than an empty rink at 20,000, right now anyway. I’m excited about the change.”

The atmosphere was much improved from the sterile, antiseptic feel of Gila River Arena 27 miles to the west.

The drumline pumped incessant “Let’s go Coyotes” chants from above the student section. (Yes, the student section.) The loud speakers gave the arena a vibrant scene, even during warmup. The game resembled a party behind the net, where standing room rails were full, a crowd invested in having a good time instead of the result.

“It was good, a bit different,” Dellandrea said. “A different road city, and something you’re not used to after a few other buildings we’ve played. But I thought it was great, it was loud, fun place to play.”

Morning skate offered a unique feeling. As the team bus parked on the loading dock at Mullett Arena, college students hunted for parking spots and hauled backpacks to class. Before the Stars took the ice, Arizona State practiced. When the Stars ran through a quick skate, a dozen Sun Devils watched from the stands.

The small building with a black roof presented its own challenges to goalies like Wedgewood.

“The ceiling’s very dark and close to you, so the pucks kind of disappear a bit when they get high,” Wedgewood said. “Probably be my only complaint, really. It felt fine. You don’t really take in rink size other than what I was talking about with the ceiling.”

The visiting dressing room was the biggest in the league — because it was built on top of the community rink, and bordered by black drapes. Space heaters dotted the room to cut the crispness, breaking up the beige metal temporary lockers. Gear chilled during the 18-minute intermission.

In the arena, there was little sign that the Coyotes played at Mullett Arena. They shared the center ice logo with Arizona State, and there was no Coyotes signage except for video board imagery. A wardrobe of Coyotes gear constituted the team shop.

It felt makeshift because, well, it is makeshift.

As the game hurdled towards a blowout, the energy resembled an exhibition game. Maybe the Stars were back at training camp in Cedar Park, or in Boise like in 2018. Perhaps the venue matched preseason games in Tulsa or Independence.

The Coyotes repeatedly crushed any of their own hopes of an upset victory.

Gurianov’s goal (his first of the season) came after Esa Lindell’s one-man forecheck pressured Nick Ritchie into a turnover. Johnston’s potted his fourth of the season on a pretty finish, but only because a wayward pass from Dysin Mayo missed Barrett Hayton in the slot.

Robertson’s first goal came after a neutral-zone turnover by Arizona; his second, on the power play following an ill-advised cross-checking penalty by Jack McBain. Robertson now has a four-game goal streak, and his seven goals lead the Stars.

Benn’s first goal of the season was perhaps the most egregious. Karel Vejmelka (who replaced Connor Ingram 11:18 into the game) passed the puck directly to Benn, who hit the vacant net.

The Coyotes have made no effort to hide their tanking intentions. They absorb bad contracts, they accumulate draft picks. They ice a team that arguably only has one player properly slotted (Clayton Keller is a top-line forward). The best thing that can come out of this season is the No. 1 pick in the draft, and the chance to draft Connor Bedard.

They are not an NHL product. Mullett Arena is hardly an NHL venue.

But the Stars were an NHL team on Thursday night.

Find more Stars coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

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