The Stars are set to enter a brutal stretch of preseason games, playing four games in five days. This includes a home-away-home schedule from tonight to Thursday and with only 36 players on the roster. Marc Crawford will have a tough task ahead, attempting to juggle keeping his players fresh and healthy while also working further to implement his system with the players who will actually be on the roster on opening day.
Even though we won't see the final team altogether on the ice until at least Saturday and possibly not until opening night, the next few games should give us a true sense of exactly what kind of team the Stars can be with Crawford as coach.
So far this preseason we've seen some encouraging signs mixed with some discouraging red flags. It's obvious that Crawford is emphasizing an attacking style offense that puts the puck on net instead of looking for the perfect cross-ice pass or setup. This is something that has maddened Stars fans for a while now and its refreshing to see the coaches finally preach that if the puck goes towards the net, good things happen.
In the loss to Colorado however, we saw the mistakes that happen when young players aren't confident in a new system. Several times throughout the game the Stars were knocked off the puck or had the puck outright stolen, leading to odd-man rushes and decent scoring chances for the Avalanche. Defensive coverage has also seemed shaky at times in the Stars zone, with the players struggling at times to clear the puck and get out of trouble.
Under Rick Wilson and Dave Tippett, the Stars would recover control of the puck in defensive zone and reset behind the goal if possible. This allowed the Stars to get into position for a controlled rush up the ice and into the offensive zone, emphasis on controlled. Yet under Crawford, the Stars will get the puck and immediately start a rush up the ice, triggered by a pass by the defense. This requires the forwards to instantly start up ice as soon as the team gets the puck, as well as a crisp and accurate pass out of the zone. This is designed to lead to odd man rushes and a fast up ice tempo that keeps the opposition off guard. Unfortunately, there are risks involved. If the pass isn't accurate or broken up, usually because of just the slightest hesitation by the passer, then the Stars are trapped in their own zone with several forwards rushing up the ice.
This is what happened in Colorado and there were fears that the talented St. Louis Blues would be in for a big night against a lineup full of players destined for the AHL. Yet Crawford showcased the ability to refocus his players and play a tight game defensively, driven by a solid game by Marty Turco. The Stars outplayed, out hustled and were more physical than the Blues, leading to a good 4-2 road win against a very good team.
It was this game against the Blues that should have Stars fans encouraged as we move forward. There were fears that with Crawford behind the bench, Stars games would erupt into 7-5 shootouts. Yet he's shown that while he certainly wants more offense and more tempo, he's not willing to sacrifice defensive integrity to reach that goal.
These Dallas Stars offer a group of players unlike those that Crawford has had play for him in the past. These are physical and gritty hockey players that have tremendous offensive capabilities while also having the ability to grind out a close game. While Crawford will certainly have this team playing differently than we're used to, it's still the Dallas Stars and it's still a group of prideful players that are determined to rebound from such a tremendously disappointing season last year.
These next few games, we should get a true feel for how the Dallas Stars will play as we enter the season. How the power play will be run, how the defense is shaping up. While there will still be AHL-bound players interspersed in the lineup, these remaining players are the ones that will be on the short list for call ups and could see time in the NHL this season.
The last few games were just a tease, a taste of what this team could be. After Saturday we'll finally have an idea of what we have on our hands: a team struggling to adapt to a new system, or a team that has embraced it's offensive potential and is hungry to get back to winning.
Dallas Stars notes:
- Jamie Benn is making a big push for the opening day roster, and his ability to produce from the right wing will be the deciding factor. With Jere Lehtinen slated to play on the Modano line when he returns, then Benn is most likely headed to the AHL to start the season. But as soon as an injury hits, you can be certain that Benn will be the first name that comes up in the conversation for call ups. Many thought that he would need time in Austin to adjust to this level of play, but so far he's shown tremendous ability to improve daily while building chemistry with those around him. That's not insignificant.
- Speaking of Lehtinen, the winger is close to returning. He's might be able to play tonight, but expect him to play tomorrow night in Florida at the earliest.
- Warren Peters is out for at least three weeks with a broken orbital bone, suffered in a fight on Saturday. It's a tough blow for a player who was also making a big push for the NHL roster.
- Matt Climie will get the start tonight, with Brent Krahn playing the second half of the game.
- Projected lineup for the game against the Panthers: