It was just an odd night all around, but the Dallas Stars held out for what has to be an uplifting win over the Chicago Blackhawks. A night after showing barely any effort or care in a hapless loss to the Boston Bruins at home, the Stars had the tough task of taking on the Blackhawks on the road. Chicago came into the game on a four game winning streak and with a lot of momentum after a busy week that included four games in five days.
The Hawks, like the Stars, were playing the second night of a back-to-back yet came out skating and ready to play. After all of the talk after last night's debacle about needing to be aggressive and energetic, the Stars seemed just as hapless as they did against the Bruins. Outshot 14-5 in the first period, only a brilliant performance by Alex Auld in net kept the Stars close in the game.
Once the second period started you had the feeling that if the Stars could just hang on a bit longer and keep the game close, then maybe they would have a chance. Dallas would once again withstand an early surge by Chicago and a great individual effort by Fabian Brunnstrom would give the Stars the break they needed. Keeping the puck alive along the boards the puck would make it's way to Brenden Morrow's stick, who would somehow punch it past Cristobal Huet. A ricochet goal off Mike Ribeiro three minutes later would give the Stars an improbable 2-0 lead early in the second period. It would be a back and forth game the rest of the night as the Stars would fight to maintain their lead against an aggressive Blackhawks team.
Yet some questionable goaltending by Huet would ultimately be the difference in this game. With the Blackhawks building momentum and down a goal in the second period, Toby Petersen took what seemed to be a harmless slap shot from the far boards on the rush. Yet the puck found it's way past Huet on the stick side and the Stars regained their two-goal lead. Perhaps more maddening for Chicago fans, Huet and the Blackhawks had bad luck go against them midway through the third period; as Stephane Robidas attempted a simple dump in along the boards, the puck caught an odd bounce and scooted past a surprised Huet. The improbable goal would once again give the Stars a two-goal lead and give them the cushion needed to pull out the win.
The victory gives the Stars a 3-1-3 record on the season so far and pushed them up into second place in the Pacific Division and seventh in the West. While it's still early in the season and teams a bunched up, the Stars found out last season the importance of getting a good jump on the standings.
Some thoughts and notes on the game after the jump.
- Before we go patting ourselves on the back too much, let's realize the reality of the situation: the Dallas Stars won tonight in spite of another uneven and inconsistent effort against a superior team. Whether it's the absence of Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Steve Ott or just a lack of confidence in themselves, but the Stars the past two nights have not looked very sure of themselves with the puck on their sticks. I'm going to try and do a film review on this soon, but the Stars are too quick to get rid of the puck once they get possession. There's rarely any skating, just flat footed passing that isn't crisp and doesn't benefit the style the Stars are trying to play. This prevents any sort of clean outlet passes from the defensive zone and leads directly to those long cycles around their net we've seen the past few nights. Get the puck, skate with it if there is space and make a smart pass onto the stick of a teammate.
Now, the Stars did play much better against Chicago than they did against the Bruins and seemed to get their legs underneath them as the game went on. They did a great job of working hard to survive the third period attack by the Hawks that everyone knew was coming and the final minute sacrifices from several players on the Stars were instrumental in securing the win. Despite some big shots from the perimeter, the Stars covered in front of the net and didn't allow any open passes despite being two-men down.
Tom Wandell had a particularly strong night, as well as Toby Petersen. While I would have liked to see Wandell just send the puck down the length of the ice in the final 30 seconds rather than wait for a shot at the empty net, the fact that was out there and playing aggressive defensive hockey in that situation shows just how much faith the coaches have in him.
- I will say this: After a shaky first period the Stars were able to start getting some sustained pressure, especially after Morrow's goal. Some tough work in the corners and along the boards and a sudden focus on just getting the puck to the net paid off. The Stars went to a simple brand of hockey and the goals started to go in. Some nifty passes in transition were able to spring a few players for some odd-man rushes at times, and the Stars were subsequently able to draw penalties off those rushes as well.
Nicklas Grossman played his best game of the season. He was strong on the puck, showed some great physicality along the boards and even added an assist for his troubles. While I keep expecting him to make some big mistake at some point, he keeps improving each game and becoming the solid and unspectacular big blueliner that Stephane Robidas needs playing beside him.
- Fabian Brunnstrom also rebounded from a very poor game against Boston to play his most complete game of the season. He was hungry for the puck, determined to make a play when he had it and one of the few players on the Stars that didn't play hot potato when he had possession. His aggression along the boards and his tenacity with the puck directly led to the Stars first goal, and was the only player on the team with a +2 rating.
- This team is sorely missing the presence of Steve Ott. There's is no physicality to the the Dallas Stars right now, no attitude that this team can use to try and turn momentum in their favor. We've always been able to count on Ott to provide a spark for the Stars when things aren't going well, and I'm not talking about an out of control slugfest. Just a big hit in the corner, a tenacity along the boards and some actual attitude for this team to build on.
- There is no doubt the goaltending was the ultimate difference in this game. Cristobal Huet was not as bad as some Hawks fans may say he was, and in fact made some pretty good saves to keep the Stars close in the second and third periods. But when your team is trying for a comeback, the goal he allowed on Petersen's shot is a backbreaker. And I don't know what he was thinking on that odd bounce that scored, but you have to stay square to the puck at all times.
As far as Alex Auld goes, he was the difference in this game. The score could easily have been 3-0 in after the first period by once again Auld stood calm in net and survived the onslaught. There's no denying that he plays a much different style then Turco, and his relaxed demeanor in net was the perfect counterattack for this Hawks team. He isn't flashy, but he's positionally sound and always on his angles. The way the team plays in front of him is noticeably different as well; the best part of his game is his control of his rebounds and rarely are the Stars scrambling in front of their own net like we've seen from Turco this season. Now, Turco has the reflexes and athleticism to block shots off these broken plays in front but Auld works to prevent them altogether.
As long as he doesn't try to play the puck any more than he absolutely has to, then he'll do just fine.
- It's a shame a good number of fans weren't able to see this game, and is an issue that has already angered fans to near a breaking point. If the NHL is looking to build a bigger fanbase, then having games not available to fans in the local area is a good way to lose viewers in a hurry.
- Finally, here's the other big factor for the this Stars win that doesn't include Alex Auld (at least not directly); the Stars penalty kill unit was outstanding. The Blackhawks failed to register a shot on goal in their first three power play opportunities and needed a sixth skater on the ice to finally get their first big chance with the man advantage. The Stars' PK unit looks almost drastically different than just a few games ago, as it seems they've really nailed down the thin line between overly aggressive and too conservative. They're challenging shots while blocking the passing lanes, and really seemed to gain some confidence in that facet of their game.
Next up: Los Angeles Kings @ Dallas Stars, 7:30p CDT