The highly anticipated 2014-15 season for the Dallas Stars almost started on a perfect note, yet ultimately showcased just what this team is capable of and at the same time just how far they have to go. The Chicago Blackhawks are a team at their very peak, winners of two of the last four Stanley Cups and a game away from the Cup Finals this past summer, and once again are expected to be the top team in the Western Conference.
The Stars absolutely dominated the Blackhawks through two periods, leading 2-1 after 40 minutes while outshooting Chicago 24-11, yet once again the Stars let a game get away from them late before losing in the shootout. For most of the game, however, the Stars showcased a speed and tenacity that not many teams are capable of against the Hawks, and the final score belies just how dominant the Stars were at times.
It was an ending that left behind a bad taste following what had mostly been a tremendous game, an ending with too many reminders of the last game that had been played at the AAC.
"It's one point, but it's the thing that sits above your stomach and makes you bitter," said Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff. "You can't criticize one guy's effort in that game because the effort was tremendous. I thought we basically dominated the game for basically the first 40 minutes of the game. Crawford was fabulous."
The effort for the Stars was certainly apparent, a team built around speed and skill finally proving almost too much for the Hawks to handle at their own game. The Stars used tight defense and a stout transition game to keep the Hawks on their heels for most of the game, until penalty issues and the Chicago power play turned the momentum back in favor of the Hawks.
The Stars showed tremendous pace in the first two periods yet hit a bit of a wall in the third period, and not just because of the penalty kills. Ruff mentioned after the game that two defensemen cramped up, along with Tyler Seguin, while Kevin Connauton also missed time in the game when he was briefly lost after a big hit along the boards.
All in all it was a promising showing for the young Stars defense, with Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley looking like they were picking right back up where they left off in the playoffs, and the third pairing of Patrick Nemeth and Kevin Connauton were rather effective, if only in limited minutes. Jordie Benn's penalties in the third period were costly (a delay of game and rather bogus holding-the-stick call), but was overall strong in both ends of the ice and proved to be -- along with Dillon -- a rather formidable pair of physical defensemen who can quickly move the puck up the ice.
Dillon, in his first real game since the playoffs, had a strong performance on his own -- he was aggressive offensively and was physical when needed and smartly moved the puck in transition. There were some showings of rust at times but it looked like Dillon was comfortable and playing with confidence, especially on the penalty kill, and once again almost knotted a short-handed goal. This time on a breakaway.
The Blackhawks used the power play to push back on the Stars and while it ultimately led to the loss, the Stars showed good poise at times in weathering the storm, but are quickly getting to the point where moral victories don't count as much as they used to.
"[Chicago's] a great team, they're a good team and I felt for forty minutes we carried the game, played some good hockey," said defenseman Trevor Daley. "The last twenty we took some penalties and they got some momentum and we had the lead and they needed to come back so I thought we handled it ok. That's something in our game we are going to have to get better at and it shows why they are a good team. They are patient for sixty minutes and found a way to win and that's a level we have to get to."
What can't be stated enough is just how entertaining the game was, a remarkable feat considering when it was played. Usually the first game of a season, and the first handful of games, are sloppy and not-very-entertaining affairs as teams get into the pace of the season; Thursday's game was one with the pace and atmosphere of a game from March or April and it was an electricity that was felt by the players down on the ice as well.
"It almost felt like a playoff game," said defenseman Brenden Dillon. "With how well both teams were skating. They're a really good team, credit to them, but I think we played well too. A couple of tough goals against, we had to get momentum back after and I think getting back into the next game here against Nashville we're going to have a lot of confidence."
"I thought it was great," said center Jason Spezza, regarding the game atmosphere. "I thought the fans were electric all night, they were into the game. I think if we get crowds like that, with that enthusiasm, it's going to help us win a lot of games."
- Kari Lehtonen didn't see much action in the first two periods of the game, allowing one goal on just eleven shots. The goal that was allowed was also a rather dubious one, with Lehtonen caught deep in his net and down in his stance when Keith's quick shot from the point snuck past him. There was a feeling of "oh brother, here we go" with Stars fans, and yet Lehtonen seemed to use that goal to wake up and get back to his old self rather quickly.
- In the third period, which saw three Chicago power plays and a full 4-on-4 situation, Lehtonen was almost his solid and spectacular self - making several big stops in tight and then somehow saving a goal with the paddle of his stick late in the third period. The good sign to me was seeing him make several very tough stops up high -- with his shoulder, blocker or glove -- which is a great sign when a goalie is off his game and playing a bit disjointed.
- He still didn't look quite like he was back to being 100% comfortable, but it was clear he was determined to get back on his game and while the Hawks ultimately tied it up, Lehtonen was not the reason for the loss on Thursday night.
- The best and most consistent line of the night for the Stars was the Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt trio. Eakin was fantastic, with his two wingers providing the skill and agitation they've quickly become known for. That line is far from perfect and likely one that will never pass the analytics test over the course of a season, but they are certainly very effective.
- Even more impressive -- neither Garbutt nor Roussel were sent to the penalty box. If that trend can continue, or at least the penalties minimized as much as possible, the Stars third line could certainly become as good as they've been hyped to be.
- The power play is still a work in progress and while it did score, it's clear it's going to take time for the potential that is apparent to become reality. It was noted on Twitter that the "supernova" power play is close to controlled chaos, and with so much skill out there it's going to take time for the players to find their rhythm together as a unit. When that starts to click, however, teams are going to be in trouble.
- I'm sure there's going to be comments made about Val Nichushkin's game tonight but it was clear that the pace of play -- combined with his limited action in the preseason -- really started to affect him in the third period and overtime. The effort was there, and there was one specific time where you could see the progression in his mind about his defensive coverage, but it's going to take some time for him to get back up to speed with the rest of the team.
- What's encouraging is that Nichushkin's positioning and defensive game were much improved already, and several times throughout Big Val made a good play tracking back defensively or even in his own zone. Ruff didn't seem too concerned overall, just noted that Nichushkin is a bit behind and just needing to catch up after dealing with a combination of injury and illness in the preseason.
- Speaking of which -- Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were a bit silent for most of the night.
- Once again, the atmosphere inside the AAC was amazing. Perhaps it was the combination of the Hawks fans in attendance, the excitement of the season opener or just the game on the ice but it felt like a direct carryover from the playoffs -- the entire lower bowl was standing through the end of the third period and in overtime. No one wanted to sit down.
- The Stars are too good to be handed any moral victories and the loss against Chicago stings -- especially since the Stars were in such control before the Blackhawks fought back, but there's not much to be upset about. Chicago is considered the best for a reason and it was clear just how emotional this opening game was for them as well after Sharp scored the tying goal -- while there is concern over how this one ended, there are also games where credit is due to the team on the other side as well.
- All in all, it was a great night, and while the result wasn't what the Stars deserved, it was a tremendous way to start the season and to kick off what should be many good times ahead.