When the season started, the Texas Stars (14-8-2-2, 32 pts, #4 Western Conference) were said to be building on a solid foundation of goaltending and defense. Jack Campbell and Cristopher Nilstorp had nearly identical numbers last season. Both were good, and both were back for another round.
Early on, Campbell was looking good. With two wins under his belt and just two goals against in those games, Texas looked like a world-beater. Slowly the wheels came off though. After Campbell's October 23 start, he went on the injured list. Shortly there after, Texas lost Nilstorp as well. Josh Robinson and Allen York were called upon to weather the storm, performing admirably in relief. That tandem had a combined 5-2-1 record.
Nilstorp came back but with shaky results. Between Campbell's injury and the start of December, Nilstorp went 2-6-1 including a four-game losing streak. A little bit of offensive support from Colton Sceviour got Nilstorp back on the winning side of the ledger last week against Oklahoma City (Edmonton Oilers) despite four goals against him.
This weekend was the possible turning point.
Campbell started for the first time in over a month against the Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild) on Friday. He was solid, making the saves he needed to keep Texas in the game and ultimately ensure the win. The epic fist pump Campbell did when Chris Mueller netted the empty netter with under a minute left said it all though. Jack's back.
"It's tough to come back when you haven't played for a while," said coach Willie Desjardins. "He made good saves and looked quick in the net."
Not to be outdone, Nilstorp endured a barrage from the Wild the next night out, dueling with Darcy Kuemper for a 2-1 overtime victory that saw him stop 38 of 39 shots. He had some sparkling, Grade-A saves to keep the game under control in the second period when it was still 0-0.
"[Nilstorp] made a huge save on the power play in the second period. I believe it was 0-0 at that point. Anytime you outplay a team and they get the first goal, it's deflating. He was huge [to get that stop]."
After the second game, coach Desjardins seemed quite relieved as he was asked about the solid performance of his goaltenders as he was able to start them in back-to-back games.
"It's been a long time since we've been able to do that."
This could be a springboard for the rest of the season and perhaps a pivot point. It's not like Texas is doing poorly, but having that stable goaltending can only help the somewhat inflated goals against numbers and ensure that the offense is not the only way to win games. Texas is clipping along at 3.42 goals for per game compared to last year's 3.09. However, they also allow 2.88 goals against per game, compared to 2.64 last season.
Jokipakka with a good week
You'll see more about it below in the game recaps, but defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka had a fantastic game on Friday. He initially got credit for two goals, though one was changed to an assist. He was creating on the power play and really working the transition throughout the entire game. He's not shying away from the physical stuff and is really impressing me as a rookie.
Defensive injuries trickle down
This week, Texas fans were bracing for the impact of the Trevor Daley injury on their squad. Smart money put either Cameron Gaunce or Patrik Nemeth in Dallas. Dark horse money was on Jyrki Jokipakka. However, the activation of Aaron Rome off Dallas' injured reserve put all that to rest.
That doesn't mean that Texas is set, however. They currently only have six healthy defensemen. With only a road trip to San Antonio in the near future, that could be sufficient. However, if another player is needed, there is no one on Dallas contract left to call. Texas has the option of calling Etienne Boutet, who is having an excellent rookie season in Idaho, or perhaps picking up a PTO player from elsewhere in the ECHL.
Returning home from a three game road trip, Texas improved their excellent home record Friday with a 4-2 win over the visiting Iowa Wild. Campbell got his first start since October 23. Jokipakka and Mike Hedden each contributed a goal and an assist in the contest. The Stars were 2-of-5 on the power play on the night, including the game-winner.
"Last game in OKC, pucks weren't bouncing for us," said Cameron Gaunce. "[Tonight], we were able to make a few plays and get the puck out of our zone. Jyrki was doing a great job jumping into plays."
Jokipakka wholly created the Stars' first goal of the night, a power play tally that saw him skate the puck on the breakout all the way from the goal line to the opposing blue.
"Jokipakka was good early [in the season] and then he tailed off a bit," said Desjardins. "The last couple games he's started to play really well again."
Jack Campbell had a solid night, stopping 24 of 26 shots against him.
"The biggest thing was the goalie-defense exchanges between us and him in the first period," said Gaunce.
Brendan Ranford had the Stars' second goal and Mueller the last into an empty net.
It was a goalie showdown in Cedar Park on Saturday between Nilstorp and Darcy Kuemper. Nilstorp got the better of his Iowa counterpart, skating away with a 2-1 overtime victory off the stick of Sceviour. Between the two goalies, 82 saves were made on 85 shots.
"You don't expect to get a lot [against Kuemper]," said Sceviour. "You have to get greasy ones and try something outside your comfort zone. Any shot is not a bad shot."
Texas had 46 total shots through nearly 64 minutes of hockey. Nisltorp was tested as well with 39 total. The fact that Texas felt confident rolling Nilstorp and Campbell in back-to-back nights means that one of the top strengths for the squad is back at 100 percent.
The Week Ahead
Texas has five days between games this week. On Friday, they welcome the Chicago Wolves (St. Louis Blues) to the Cedar Park Center. On Sunday, the Stars head to San Antonio for their umpteenth game against the Rampage (Florida Panthers).
No injuries to report at the moment. Coach Desjardins pointed out that only "two or three" guys in the locker room are at 100%, but that's the nature of hockey. Everyone's fighting a little something.