There have been times in the recent past when the Dallas Stars have faced a tough test at home, only to come out completely flat and without energy and rely on the goaltender to provide any sort of boost to keep the team in the game. This was an inconsistency from game to game that was incredibly frustrating to watch because, even if a team isn't the most skilled, you'd hope for a team to at least put up a valiant effort in a losing cause.
This was a big reason for the changes the Stars made in the offseason, changing a good portion of core of the team in order to effect a change in the locker room and on the ice. While the Stars certainly can't be said to be the most talented or skilled, the hope would be that this was a team that would at the very least fight to the very end.
On Saturday night against the Blues, at least the fight was there.
The Stars were severely outgunned on Saturday, facing perhaps the best team in the NHL with half of the top six missing and a team that was grossly inexperienced at the NHL level. Most expected a slaughter at the hands of the Blues at home, in front of a big home crowd no less, and while the end result was certainly frustrating it was tough not to walk away feeling at least somewhat positive about this team moving into the future.
"You don't get points for trying in this league" said Gulutzan on Saturday night. "We wish we could have gotten one in the end. We had a great chance, he had an inside post there...I thought, for our young guys, a lot of them played really hard tonight and handled the minutes against a very good hockey club."
The Stars received goals from Tomas Vincour, Michael Ryder and Ryan Garbutt and held a 2-1 lead midway through the second period until a three-goal outburst by St. Louis that knocked the Stars back on their heels. The defensive breakdowns in the second period were alarming and indicative of a larger issue that will likely plague the Stars for most of the season, yet the Stars showcased a true grit in the third period in a fight to come back against a very, very good defensive team.
Part of that third period push came from center Cody Eakin, who had been pushed into the top center spot with Derek Roy and Jamie Benn both not playing. Eakin finished with 22:06 of ice time and no shots yet was instrumental in the Stars offensive attack throughout the third. More imporantly, Eakin once again showcased his ability to be a very good two-way center.
"He did well in the faceoff circle, especially there at the end," Gulutzan said of Eakin. "He played with some good players and didn't look out of place. Real encouraging stuff for our group moving forward."
The Stars also had a chance to see what Reilly Smith could do in a limited role, who also showed flashes of offensive brilliance while also providing solid two-way play on defense. Tomas Vincour also had a big performance in his first game back in the NHL this season, having stated that not getting a chance to make the team out of camp was the sort of wakeup call he needed.
The Stars were missing three of the best players on the team and while the hard work wasn't nearly enough in the end, seeing players expected to be a big part of the team's future step up against a tough opponent was great for the franchise moving forward.
It's perhaps something we haven't been able to say about this team in a long time; that the Stars relied on some gritty young players to attempt to overcome a tough test through true grit and hard work. Last season the Stars adopted the mantra of being a "pesky" team, yet the Stars were unable to find that extra reserve of grit when the season was on the line. The sort of fight shown by the Stars in the third period, that nearly culminated with a game-tying goal by Ray Whitney, is exactly what was needed in the final weeks last season when the team basically fell apart.
If the same mentality and work ethic from Saturday's loss can remain when the talent returns with Benn, Jagr and Roy, then the Stars will at least have a fighting chance moving forward. The hope would be then, that if the postseason is on the line once more this year, the Stars won't fall apart when the pressure is the greatest.
"I learned we have some work to do as a group and to get a little bit more efficient on the ice," Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said after the Blues game when asked about the last two losses. "But I also learned that we've got some young players that are ready for more. We might have to go through some growing pains but at the end of the day, they did well. I thought tonight work ethic wise, we worked hard."