So this is it. Well, not quite, but this week. Thursday, to be exact, the Dallas Stars kick off their regular season odyssey at home against the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s about time, too. We’ve spent all summer speculating, predicting, worrying, call it the emotional spectrum of the true fan, we need some hard data. But which game is most important? Which will be the truest test of our revamped Stars, and the best indication of how the months to follow might go?
I’m tempted to say game numero uno. The Blackhawks are an elite team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, the list is familiar because we’ve seen so much of them in prime time national broadcasts and during the post-season. I could also point to the showdown with Anaheim at month’s end. By all rights both teams should have their feet by that point, plus, there will undoubtedly be lingering animosity from an energetically contested quarter final last season. Both will be excellent games, but neither will be the most important. Nor will the divisional showdowns with Nashville (Oct 11) or St. Louis (Oct 28).
Instead, the first interesting test I see is their 6th game, when the Stars play host to a significantly reshuffled Vancouver squad. That’s right, the freaking Canucks. The defending 25th place, fired-their-coach-in-the-offseason Canucks. The players-too-old, traded-Ryan-Kesler-in-the-offseason bunch from B.C. almost certain to turn last year’s hiccup into an all-out tailspin. Hear me out.
The opening month of the NHL's regular season is nutty. It's an odd confluence of off-season expectations and on-ice results. Data has begun to compile, but the sample size monster prevents us from drawing any serious statistical conclusions. Last October, for instance, those same Canucks were a playoff team, as were the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes. San Jose was blowing everyone out as the presumptive Stanley Cup favorite, and we all knew the Colorado Avalanche were destined to crash and burn. The point is, it was too early to really tell what was going to happen.
So it turns into more of a gut reaction. All summer I've been wondering if a super-charged offense is enough to get the job done. If our superstars stay potent, and our goaltending superlative. I won't necessarily know for sure by the 21st, but I'll have a much better idea. I'll also have a better idea of whether or not Brad Richards can elevate Chicago's second line, and a glimpse of how far Pekka Rinne has to come to get back to being Pekka Rinne.
Six good games, and whoa boy Dallas is rolling. Six bad ones, and maybe the pressure mounts to call someone up. When I look at the five preceding games; the Penguins in Pittsburgh and Chicago at home should be legitimate tests. Nashville at home? Possibly. The Blue Jackets in Columbus? They were a playoff team last year, but are unlikely to have Ryan Johansen so early in the season. Good luck figuring out how the Flyers are going to play on any given night. Right now, I can talk myself into the Stars at 5-0, the Stars at 0-5, and everything in between.
Most likely, their record will be somewhere in that in between space, which turns the Vancouver game into something of a referendum. Vancouver will be healthier this season, and less distracted. They'll also be older and less talented. Remember: Dallas went 3-0 against Vancouver last season (2-1, 4-1, 6-1). The Stars should view this as a winnable game. The Dillon contract means all of the Stars' significant free agents are back in the fold. Travel won't be an excuse (Dallas plays in Pittsburgh the night of the 16th), and the fact that it's not a back-to-back means they should be able to use whichever goaltender they'd like. Good teams, playoff teams, step up and win games exactly like this one.
One last fun stat: only two playoff places changed hands after October last season. Without Vancouver's implosion, or a late season injury to Mike Smith, that number could very well have been zero. When Dallas plays Vancouver, they might be an early-season buzz saw set to serve notice on the rest of the Conference. They might also be a tentative, defensively frail group struggling to live up to lofty pre-season expectations.
Last season, on their march to the Calder Cup, the Texas Stars did something clever. Rather than look at their entire season, they broke it into meaningful chunks. The point was never to win 76 games, it was to win a week, then another, then another. Each time they were successful, they knocked a puck down in the locker room. They knew that if they took care of enough weeks, the season would work itself out. Versus Vancouver, on October 21st is Dallas' first Puck Game, and to me their most important, at least until their next most important game...