Last night marked the official start of the Dallas Stars 2011 Preseason and what better venue than Montreal's Bell Centre to kick things off? I have always had an incredible experience at that arena; whether I was partial to a team playing or not, the building has the buzz and excitement every arena should.
Tonight started no different; picture yourself in a white Stars jersey (with #26 on the back if you want to be specific) walking throughout Montreal. You begin in the mid-East beside McGill University and head right downtown to the Bell Centre. Chirps are directed toward you in multiple languages, Habs chants begin out of random passersby and yet you can only think of the magic that awaits from a seemingly unknown team from Texas. Your team from Texas.
The Warm Up
I love watching NHL warm-ups. It gives the fan a perspective to witness some of the players' personal rituals before the game; something that provides that little extra connection with the fans. Like most NHL arenas, the Bell Centre staff gladly allowed me to watch down by the Dallas glass. My 24 year old mind instantly regressed to half that age. I was in awe every time Brenden or Ribs skated by. As a goaltender, I frantically took as many pictures as I could of Besko (I snagged some of Raycroft as well, but I'm really not a big fan). I even showed some love to J. Benn Part II (or Part 0 I suppose). For the record, they decided it was necessary to put "J Benn" on Jordie's sweater even though Jamie wasn't playing.
The experiences following the warm up instilled the exact reasons I love being a Stars fan in other cities; save for two games in Dallas, I don't know anything different. People don't give the team as a whole any respect and I love engaging in vivid hockey debates with passionate fans. As I reached the entrance to my section, I mistakenly tried to find my seat in the first Row C I found, only to be turned away. The looks of disgust and chirps I received from Habs fans were priceless and sent me on my way with a massive grin (apparently the Bell Centre thought putting two sets of rows A-D in the same sectioned area was a great idea).
Finally settling into my proper seat one row from the back wall of the building, I was ready to go. Prior to the anthems they displayed a tribute video to all the NHL related players lost this summer. I gave a clap when Karlis' photo came up and had to hold back a few tears.
As we all know, the game began with a bang. The boys flew across the ice with a passion I hadn't seen since the second last game of last season. More importantly, it was only their first game together as a unit, but the Morrow-Ribs-Ryder line was just buttery smooth. I don't want to put much stock in that since it's the pre-season, but there was certainly chemistry there and they were making passing plays I never thought I would see them pull off this early. I should note that I did not see the incident which sent Brenden to the dressing room. I can only hope his comments after the game are true to the severity (in that it isn't).
Following the first three goals, the Stars seemed to back off a little bit, yet they still maintained a strong team mentality. I was expecting to notice certain individual players, but I found myself just being happy with how they were all playing as a unit. It seems Coach Gulutzan's system is being instilled quite quickly.
Seeing Toby on the 2nd line was also a delight as he really seemed to embrace a leadership roll out there. It took longer than I would have liked for Wandell and Vincour to get their legs going, but once they did, boy did they look good. Tommy made a few nice dangles in the Habs zone to retain possession at times and Vincour showed flashes of his potential once again. I began getting worried that those flashes would be just that: flashes, until one play at the very end of the game. I'm sure Razor pointed out the half-hearted hip check that sent Tomas flying in ultra slow motion for what seemed like an eternity. However, Vincour picked himself back up and on the very next play absolutely laid into the Habs' defenseman who was trying to get rid of the puck. It was a great hockey hit and showed Tomas' intensity and work ethic. He just needs to build on that emotion and keep it going for a full 60 minutes.
The third line was a shutdown three-some who looked to be well into their regular form. Save for maybe two or three shifts, Barch, Dowell and Sawada never let up on the pressure they gave the Habs' forwards and defense. I was never a fan of having Barch on the ice last season (mostly because he simply lost fights) but I loved seeing these three together. Dowell was a gem all around as he could win faceoffs and play some fantastic defence. There was never a time when I was worried about defensive laps and they seemed to keep their shifts short and crisp (for the most part).
I wish I could have as many good things to say about the fourth line of Wathier, Morin and Fraser, but the fact is I just don't have much to say. They weren't very noticeable, but more so for a lack of ice time rather than a lack of effort. Wathier's fight was great, not so much for the fight itself but for the energetic fist pump he gave to the Dallas bench prior to his sin bin escort. The line also pulled of a nifty passing play leading to Fraser's goal which had the Habs defense reeling. I will say I thought Fraser began to find himself more and more as the game went on. I would really like to see him get more ice time over the next few pre-season games.
Not all was as bright eared and bushy tailed on the defensive side of things (in this fan's mind anyway). I wasn't a huge fan of the Goligoski-Pardy tandem. Don't get me wrong, neither player had a bad game; rather they were both beyond where I thought they would be at this point. However their styles just don't complement each other at all. It seemed Goose had to hold back his offensive creativity because Pardy (through no fault of his own) just isn't at the same level. Once they each settle into their usual spots in the line up, they'll both be fine.
On the other side of the spectrum I can't say enough good things about the Fortunus-Dillon tandem. They complimented each other like no other pairing tonight and more importantly I never felt scared when they were on the ice. Instead, I wanted to see them more and more. Sure they each had a few muck ups, but overall they both had a very good game.
Then there was Grossman and Larsen. Let me begin by saying I absolutely love Gross while Larsen has a lot to prove to me. Gross looked like he hadn't played since last February, which I can't knock him for since that's exactly what's happened. On the other hand, I found myself becoming frustrated with Larsen. On top of his tiny frame, he seemed to miss his defensive coverage more so than the other boys, he wasn't making the breakout passes I expected and he didn't try to use his speed to jump into the rush. What's worse, he served up a massive suicide pass to none other than Tom Wandell in the first period. Neither team had figured out how to throw a body check by that point, so luckily the crisis was averted. I will give him credit for thwarting a semi-breakaway which resulted from Gross tripping over his own feet in the second period, but overall I thought Larsen had the second weakest game out of the Stars' line up.
Who had the weakest game out of the bunch you may be wondering? Well that I have to give to Mr. Andrew Raycroft. Again, I supposed I should put the disclaimer that I have never been a fan of his, but tonight just showed why. He made a few routine saves in the first period, but the first two goals were a direct result of him being too far back and not reacting to the shot properly. Neither shot was tipped or significantly screened; they simply just beat him. The third goal was much of the same, however the Stars were running around in their own end for a good 1:30 prior to the puck crossing the line, so I won't blame Raycroft on that one. However, the first two goals compounded with his horrible lateral goal mouth movement (I say horrible because it didn't exist; he just fell back as the shot hit him and hoped for the best) earned him the least impressive Star award.
Tyler Beskorowany on the other hand was a delight to watch. He wasn't tested much, but he made the routine saves when needed and was always in great position. During the final five minutes, the Habs had a few outside shots which the surrounding fan base seemed to think were sure goals (I hope you can feel my eyes rolling in that sentence). Mr. Besko had other ideas and showed them what standard goaltending looks like.
In the grand scheme of things, this game means nothing and really won't predict how any one player will perform this year. However, my thoughts can be summarized as follows:
- The boys are buying into Glen's system and it looks good
- The Morrow-Ribs-Ryder line will be just dandy (fingers crossed on Morrow)
- Dowell was a great pickup
- Dillon and Fortunus really impressed me tonight
- I see Goose sticking with Robidas for the season to give him the ability to be creative
- Larsen needs more confidence and a lot of food