Dallas Stars: Five Lessons Learned from the Season Opener

It’s only one game, but there are lessons to be learned from the Dallas Stars’ season opening 3-2 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night.

The Stars know the value of starting the season strong. They stumbled out of the gates last season as they tried to get familiar with a new coach, a new roster and a new system. After breaking a long playoff drought, the Stars have renewed hopes. The postseason is no longer a wish, it is an expectation. With that in mind and an improved roster on the ice, what better way to start the season than against a Stanley Cup contender? If a team wants to be the best, a good measuring stick is playing one of the best. Below are five lessons that can be taken from the Stars’ season opener.

1- The Defense Will Do Fine

Dallas’ defense is one of the biggest worries voiced by media members and fans over the summer. While the offense received several additions and a significant boost, the Stars entered this season with the same defensive unit as last season. Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley picked up where they left off and were the team’s best defensemen against Chicago. They finished with the most ice time on the team, and they both played a big role on the power play. Brenden Dillon looked like he didn’t miss a second of training camp with his strong play in both ends of the ice. He had the third highest ice time on the team, second highest ice time on the penalty kill and was visible nearly every time he stepped on the ice.

Jordie Benn played over 23 minutes, blocked four shots and maintained his solid defensive positioning. His positive play was marred by two penalties that cost the team dearly. One resulted in the game-tying goal and the other put the Stars on the penalty kill for the last two minutes of regulation. Patrik Nemeth played his expected quiet, safe and sturdy defensive game, and he did some with more comfort and confidence than last season. Kevin Connauton did not stand out, but that’s a positive considering he is a seventh defenseman playing against a dangerous offensive team, one that burned him several times last season.

Again it was only one game, but the Stars seem to be in good hands defensively. Even when the defense falters, the Stars’ system lends to at least one forward falling back to cover, as Antoine Roussel did to shut down a Brandon Saad breakaway opportunity. It is possible that the defense played over their heads toward the end of last season, for at least one game this season they showed they can maintain that level of play.

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2- The Third Line Is a Monster

The line of Roussel, Cody Eakin and Ryan Garbutt, referred to as “the pitbull line” by some fans, looked right at home on the third line. Last season, the trio finished with a combined 96 points, 351 penalty minutes and a reputation as a gritty, agitating line with lots of speed and the ability to score. Now that they are moved down to the third line, they have the ability to continue their agitating ways without the pressure of having to produce.

Like Dillon, Eakin didn’t look like he missed training camp at all, and Roussel led the team with seven hits and four blocks. The trio combined for 10 hits, five blocks, eight shots and over eight minutes of ice time on the penalty kill on the night. With more time to build chemistry, fewer mind-numbing penalties taken in the offensive zone and less pressure to score, this line could be even more dangerous than it was last season.

 

3- Special Teams Will Be Better This Season

Though the season opener’s stat line may not show it, the power play looked astronomically better than last season, specifically the first unit. For most of Dallas’ power play time last season, the Stars struggled to get past center ice with the puck, let alone get it into the opposing zone and set up plays. Through one game, that aspect seems to be greatly improved. Not only did the Stars have cleaner and quicker zone entries, but they looked downright dangerous with the man advantage. Yes, 1-for-6 doesn’t show any improvement on paper, but it was clear on the ice.

The additions of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky added a lot more skill and crisp puck movement to the power play. The first unit created a lot of scoring chances, but Crawford stood on his head. Spezza’s speed and strength on the puck is an improvement. His ability to pick up the drop back pass near center and weave or pass his way into the zone was impressive. Add to that his chemistry with Hemsky and the support of two other skilled players with chemistry in Benn and Tyler Seguin, and the power play should do better than its 23rd overall finish last season.

The most impressive aspect of the Stars’ penalty killing on Thursday was how the team did with key members in the box. Four of the five penalties taken saw key penalty killers spend time in the sin bin, and three of those were defensemen. Fiddler is usually the first forward out on the PK, and he saw a full two minutes in the box. Dillon spent two minutes in the penalty box, and he still finished only 10 seconds short of leading the team in short-handed ice time. Jordie Benn is a key factor on the PK, and even though he was called for two penalties, he still saw more than three minutes of short-handed ice time. Through all of that and two separate elongated instances of defensemen with broken sticks, the PK held the league’s 10th best power play last season to one goal on five opportunities, including one to close out regulation. Not bad at all.

 

4- The New Additions Looked Good, Really Good.

Ales Hemsky looks to be part of a formidable second line with Jason Spezza. (Jerome Davis/Icon SMI)
Ales Hemsky looks to be part of a formidable second line with Jason Spezza. (Jerome Davis/Icon SMI)

As mentioned earlier, Spezza brings a lot of speed and skill to the lineup. His chemistry with Hemsky is undeniable. Twice Spezza made blind cross-ice passes that zipped directly to Hemsky’s stick. Hemsky has a knack for finding the net. He is elusive around the net and can create something out of nothing from behind or next to the goal.

They worked well together and fed off of each other in creating a lot of the Stars’ scoring chances. The third member of Dallas’ second line, Patrick Eaves, showed good hustle, but an inability to find the net. A couple of times he found open ice, but mishandled the pass or couldn’t get the shot on net. His best chance of the night ended up hitting the crossbar in the first period.

In just one game, Spezza and Hemsky showed almost exactly what management and fans were hoping for. They improved the power play, showed tremendous chemistry and support in all three zones and they were just as dangerous at even strength as the first line. Some of the best teams in the league currently boast a dangerous 1-2 punch, and it looks like the Stars found theirs.

 

5- This Season Is Going to Be Intense

The heading is in reference to the Stars’ season both on the ice and off the ice. As far as playing style goes, the Stars are easily one of the league’s most entertaining teams this season. The Stars were one of the fastest teams in the league last season, but in the season opener, they looked even faster somehow. They completely dominated a Stanley Cup favorite for 40 minutes. The Stars can hit, skate, score and defend effectively, and they play under Lindy Ruff’s complete team mentality. For seemingly the entire first period, the Blackhawks looked like they were hanging on for dear life. That’s not easy to do to one of the most talented and deep teams in the league. The Stars’ effort was that of a playoff game already, and so was the atmosphere.

The fans are back. It took some time to build the fan base over the last two seasons, but this summer provided a leap forward. Season ticket holders increased by 3,000 prior to the season opener. The fans were loud and engaged. Whether it was starting a “Let’s go Stars” chant to drown out the Blackhawks fans in attendance, or the roaring reactions to a Jason Spezza deke or Jamie Benn hit, the fans also picked  up where they left off in April.

The Stars did almost everything right. They outperformed the Blackhawks in nearly every major category, but they were undone by a superb performance by Corey Crawford and an inability to cash in on opportunities. The effort up and down the lineup and the dedication to Lindy Ruff’s game plan was phenomenal.