Entering the 2011-12 season it was widely considered that for the Dallas Stars to enjoy success that its two best players would have step up and take their game to another level. Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson, suddenly thrust into the role of anchoring the top line for the Stars, have lived up to that potential through the first 13 games of the season and even better -- it appears there's still more room for growth between the two.
After the 5-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, in which Benn and Eriksson combined for five points, it was obvious that a chemistry was building between the two after their second straight game of near-dominance on the ice. The duo has led the team in scoring for most of the season thus far but in the past three games -- Benn with six points and Eriksson with seven -- the two budding superstars are displaying a knack for playing with each other that no one could have anticipated.
In a rare moment of weakness after the game, Benn allowed his personality to let loose a bit and let slip this interesting nugget about how he and Eriksson continue to build their chemistry together on and off the ice.
"We hang out almost every day and play video games," said Benn. "We talk about life, but sometimes we play with each other in the video games. We have pretty good chemistry there and it definitely feeds into our game out here."
Video games, you say? So, you practice your game together playing as each other?
"We do practice mode a lot and do 2-on-1s in the practice mode so...it's pretty good."
For some reason, this revelation did not surprise me in the least.
When the season first began there were many worries about the Eriksson and Benn combination and whether they would gel at the level this team would need them to. For Eriksson, it was a question as to whether he'd be successful without Brad Richards, who had departed the team for the New York Rangers. With Benn, the question was becoming whether he'd become the playmaking center the Stars had asked him to be, rather than a pure goal scorer playing off the wing.
Both players were being asked to take significant steps in their career this summer, especially with the Stars relying on Benn to be their number two center behind Mike Ribeiro. Outside of Dallas, not many were worried about Eriksson although that worry still persisted when both struggled for the first couple of games of the season.
Now, with both up to 15 points on the season in just 13 games, it's apparent that all concerns should be set aside for now.
"It seems like we're getting to know each other better and better as we go along here," Eriksson said.
Both players acknowledged after the game that while they are certainly enjoying some success now, the two still have a long ways to go before they're completely comfortable out on the ice. The good news is that while they may not be at the height of their offensive potential just yet, they're playing at such a high level already it's forcing the rest of the NHL to sit up and take notice.
"It's always fun to win," said Eriksson. "We needed to, and it's always nice to play with the confidence like we're doing right now. This was a really good start for this road trip, so we'll keep going from here."
This, of course, is the biggest point that can be made. The Stars are off to a 10-3-0 start, the first team in the NHL to reach 10 wins and they have surprised the entire NHL with their success so far this season. For most of the first month of the season it was easy to dismiss the Stars' success as attributable to Kari Lehtonen's miraculous play in net.
Suddenly, however, the team is improving as a whole. The offense is starting to come together and thanks to a two-game outburst in the scoring department, the Stars suddenly have the best goal-differential in the West Conference. With Mike Ribeiro still looking to get rolling offensively, the rise of Benn and Eriksson has been the key to this team's success so far this season.
"We got two real cerebral players, they just kind of feed off each other and they think the game so well," added coach Glen Gulutzan. "Loui's been underrated for years in the NHL, I think, and you got two smart guys playing together and they're having a good streak right now."
Perhaps the biggest compliment paid to this dynamic duo is the fact that when Steve Ott was lost to a hip injury, coach Gulutzan decided to move the struggling Michael Ryder to the right wing next to Benn in an effort to spark Ryder's production. It's no coincidence then, that in the two games playing on Benn's line, he has five points and suddenly looks much more comfortable out on the ice.
Seeing the chemistry build between the two has been fun for Dallas Stars fans, as it's possible we haven't seen this sort of offensive potential between two players since the days of Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen. The two are approaching the level of success enjoyed between two players who instinctively know where the other will be, who know where to place that perfect pass so the other can enjoy a nifty one-timer.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this budding bromance is the fact that both are perhaps the best defensive forwards on the team. Eriksson has long been regarded as one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL and Benn is growing defensively while always maintaining his potential to take the puck the other way after picking the pocket of an unsuspecting defenseman.
The Dallas Stars have a very tough road ahead of them this week, taking on Washington, Pittsburgh and Detroit in a span of just five days. With Benn and Eriksson finding their groove and continuing to build their chemistry together -- whether that's scoring shorthanded goals in an NHL game or practicing their 2-on-1 moves in NHL 12 -- the Stars are going to continue to surprise the NHL with their successes against the best the league has to offer.