It’s nice to feel the pulse of the fanbase again, isn’t it?
If there’s a better way to start the season than playing the Arizona Coyotes at home, I’m not sure what it is. The Stars have eaten Arizona’s lunch for years now. In fact, the Coyotes haven’t beaten Dallas since 2015-16, when the ‘Yotes went 2-1 against the eventual Western Conference champs of the regular season.
And, sure enough, the Dallas Stars made it feel easy, even if this game was a lot more precarious than it needed to be. Three goals in 96 seconds or whatever will do that, I suppose. Going from a coin flip at home to a 3-0 lead in the time it takes a left turn light to cycle from red to green? That’ll skew perceptions just a tad.
For instance, the Stars looked a lot like last year’s version for a bit in the third period, not tallying a shot on goal for nearly the first half of the third. This is, of course, akin to what happened in the second half of the game in general. After that lead, the Stars sat back and let the score effects effectively have their way. Thankfully, Arizona only got one power play, and Ben Bishop was able to handle everything else the Coyotes could muster.
So, don’t expect these Stars to be wholly immune to the league-wide phenomenon that is the tendency to sit on a lead, but they do at least have a coach who said he was unhappy with the team’s offensive game after a 3-0 win. That is something different, for sure.
The broadcast was on top of this, too. As Razor put it, Ben Bishop made the Stars look like they put forth a far better defensive effort than they actually did. Last year at home against Vegas in the first game of the year, you may recall that Ben Bishop was similarly solid until getting knocked out of the game with a shot to the noggin. James Neal would score two goals (one assisted by Cody Eakin), and the Knights would go on to steal the game, the regular season, and sort of the entire Western Conference, somehow.
But neither was this 2016-17, when the Stars stole a portentous opener from the Ducks despite being bombarded the entire game. Instead, tonight showed the Stars’ strengths along with their weaknesses, and both were weighted somewhat appropriately. These Stars should be better than the Coyotes, and they were. They probably don’t shut them out every time, but there are very good things to take away from this game along with the teachable moments. For a first NHL game behind the bench, Jim Montgomery’s debut went pretty all right.
Back to the broadcast for a moment though, I’ll add my voice to the throng of folks complimenting Josh Bogorad on his work alongside Daryl Reaugh. It’s hard to follow three outstanding folks who sat that side of the booth in Ralph Strangis, Dave Strader and Razor, but Josh Bogorad fit in as seamlessly as Miro Heiskanen tonight. The broadcast was smooth, packed with information, and it really felt like two people working in roles they’ve honed over the course of many years. The little things will get better and better in time, but speaking from a listener’s perspective, the broadcast did exactly what you’d want it to do: communicate the tenor of the game while offering insight in places you might not notice.
As for Bogorad’s old seat, Brien Rea also seemed like a natural alongside Brent Severyn. There are a lot of new things about the Dallas Stars this season, but Brien Rea’s arrival is perfectly timed to coincide with the influx of talent from Texas, including the likes of Roope Hintz, and possibly Gavin Bayreuther and even Denis Guryanov later this year. Stars Live was enjoyable and substantial in its new look, and that’s a positive. Anyway, just my two cents, which are worthless in terms of criticizing professional sports broadcasters, but here we are.
Ah, but Miro Heiskanen. From his first shift, the 19-year-old electrified the crowd. You could practically hear all of the insufferable people you occasionally sit next to as they leaned over to their neighbors and said, “This kid’s gonna be something special, I’m tellin’ you.” Probably you could hear them because all of us were saying it. Heiskanen on 4v4 created a scoring chance immediately, and his entire first shift (that link has it all) was really a thing of beauty. Honestly, if you weren’t sold on the hype after the preseason, you have to be pretty jazzed about a 19-year-old defenseman killing penalties and wreaking (positive) havoc in both zones, no?
Jim Montgomery has The Plan, but he also has plans, too. As Razor mentioned on the broadcast, the Stars are loaded with set plays after winning faceoffs, and a clean win to Seguin in the slot set up a great chance that Antti Raanta swallowed up early on. Tyler Seguin looked a little rusty, but a rusty Tyler Seguin is still Tyler Seguin, and you’d expect him to nail the open net he had at a sharp angle the next time he sees it. Elite scorers tend to score.
Jamie Benn also looked energized and dangerous tonight, even before he was getting flipped through the air by Christian Fischer. Thankfully, Benn’s MCL is stronger than that of most mortals, and he was up and r’aring to go after a knee that was properly penalized. I’m on the less adamant side when it comes to reacting to knees like that, as I think that particular one was akin to a player desperately hooking someone who is about to blow by them. Fischer didn’t seem like someone who really thought that play through other than an instantaneous “don’t let him get by me.” Sure, we might all be singing a different tune if Benn had missed six weeks, but I dunno. I’ve probably done something similar in a game at some point just because I didn’t want to get burned, so maybe I’m just feeling ashamed of my past self.
Mattias Janmark’s knee, meanwhile, was looking just fine after a coast-to-coast rush that ended in an unsuccessful wraparound chance to start the second. I had him as my player of the game after Bishop, but Carrick and Klingberg (who earned second and third star honors) are great choices, too. That Spezza-Janmark-Comeau line played third-line minutes, and I would expect that to continue even after Valeri Nichushkin returns and presumably bumps Comeau back to the Faksa-Pitlick line. Then again, this was a roll-four-lines game outside of the 4v4 time, so it’s hard to make too many definitive statements about TOI allocation, except to say that Miro Heiskanen is good. I guess that’s not really an ice time thing per se, but it bears repeating.
Clayton Keller was also the Coyotes’ best player early on, for my money, though the Stars quieted him down as the game went on. Those big saves early on can really swing a game, as someone once said in like, every hockey game ever.
As for the 5v4 time, it would’ve been nice for the Stars to cash in on that penalty to make the kneeing penalty sting for Fischer as much as it did for Benn, but the Stars’ top unit (on both chances) looked a little unsure of itself tonight. In fact, the second unit seemed a bit more purposeful at times, but I put that down to the first unit having a longstanding groove amongst themselves that they’re recalibrating under Todd Nelson, while the second cadre of skaters are fairly recently assembled. Simple plays are good when you’re up a man, and Miro Heiskanen and company were finding space for the brief time they had on the advantage. It would be nice if the Stars actually had a second power play unit this year, wouldn’t it?
The penalty kill, meanwhile, also looked a bit useful-yet-tentative at times. The group is clearly pressuring the points more, but they did get “seamed” (to quote Montgomery from the preseason) once or twice, too. Still, Faksa-Pitlick-Comeau-Shore should be a solid group, and Heiskanen and Polák do both seem immensely useful back there in Stephen Johns’s absence. They will face much more dangerous power plays than this, but there’s no harm in pronouncing a job well done, as far as it goes. The depth players are there to make an impact in non-elite ways, and the PK certainly seemed to score its metaphorical points tonight.
Speaking of sort of depth scoring, Roope Hintz almost made his own glorious debut with a goal after a glorious chance on the doorstep from Brett Ritchie, who got to a loose puck and set Hintz’s table. With Devin Shore and the “third” line scoring tonight, the Stars were at least a multifaceted threat for once. Yes, John Klingberg still played half the game, but this wasn’t the most punishing of contests. Klingberg was probably happy to work the rust off, and Montgomery was probably happy to be able to give mostly OZ starts to the Roman Polák/Connor Carrick pairing and leave the tough stuff to the big (metaphor) boys.
And lo! That third defense pairing was...not bad. Not bad at all, despite the fears of some that whatever is keeping Julius Honka from the coaches’ good graces will hamper the team in the long run. All I will say about Honka for now is this: the Stars know his ceiling is higher than half the defensemen on this roster, and they have, through three coaches now, been willing to scratch him when they think it’s necessary. Montgomery said that Honka needs to attack space and have better gap or something, but this team doesn’t play Roman Polák and a player they just got from the hockey AMPM late last night in their opener unless they have good reasons.
(Also, re: Honka being scratched, I basically called this back in July because I am the hockey expert, except for those things about which I have been wrong which we shall not ever discuss because who has that kind of time.)
Roman Polák, of course, was hitting everything in sight, even stepping up to deliver a solid hit in the neutral zone. That’s a point of order for this team, is really stepping up on zone entries, and while I don’t have the zone-entry numbers, it certainly looked like the Stars had a better time of it in crossing the blue line. Connor Carrick, in fact, had a couple of nice transition plays, and his rep from Toronto is one of a player who can skate with the puck and maybe do some useful things that you might not always expect from a third-pairing player. Again, we’re sort of at sea with the third defense pairing these days, but Connor Carrick seems like the goodest of dudes, as far as Instagram can say, at least. Picking up a quality third-pairing defenseman with upside for a seventh-round pick is, it hardly needs saying, always a great move.
Connor Carrick, as we said, had a good debut for Dallas, racking up two assists and generally getting the puck headed the other direction with possession. Behold:
What isn’t on this chart is the mixup between Ben Bishop and Carrick that sent the Stars goalie stumbling, but thankfully the spirit of Dan Hamhuis was not present, and Bishop would finish out the game in sterling form. Anyway, it’s tough to fault a guy who moved to town like ten minutes ago for not expecting his goalie to be a bit out of the net.
Esa Lindell is supposedly going to be more active this season, and he had a nice exchange with Jason Spezza to set up a chance late in the first when Spezza nutmegged his man to feed Lindell. Unfortunately, Alex Goligoski’s right leg blocked the shot, but hopefully this will change the mind of whatever doofus in Arizona has been complaining that Goligoski doesn’t block enough shots.
Ben Bishop, though, earned every bit of this shutout. For a goalie playing his first game since his devastating injury last spring, Bishop was calm and composed, and he was effective in his passes and his saves. Bishop was almost too calm (not to say “too poised”) halfway through the first on a wrap play from Richardson that bounced off a skate and into his near side pad. Off the ensuing faceoff, Clayton Keller ripped a shot clean off the post from the top of the circle, but I guess you need to have some willful tranquility as a goaltender, and Bishop found his peaceful place tonight no matter what came his way. Goaltending©—it is good to have.
(NB: We’re running very long, I know, but hey, it’s game one, so we’re going to make a meal of it.)
The Coyotes hit their second clean post of the game after Oliver Ekman-Larsson got away from the Stars’ third line forwards for a wide-open chance in the red zone. Those same third line forwards would immediately redeem the coupon OEL couldn’t cash, however, as Devin Shore got to a rebound, kicked it to his stick and put it past Raanta for the first of the game. It doesn’t totally make sense except as a commentary on Montgomery’s system, but I’d expect Shore to have a bit less ice time and a bit more points this year.
As for the other tallies, you may remember how Alexes Radulov and Goligoski had different experiences tracking a Three Flies Up pass, as Radulov cottoned to the lob first, lost it in Goligoski’s skates, and eventually put a rather less-than-intimidating backhand through Antti Raanta, who will not be mounting that goal on his museum wall.
And shortly thereafter, John Klingberg got his own skates turned around on just such an airborne pass, and Ben Bishop had to come up big on a top-flight chance from a certain Brendan Perlini. That kept the game from going to 2-1, which would’ve been a big momentum-killer right after the Radulov goal.
But then, just a few moments later at 4v4, Perlini would himself get turned around in the neutral zone for the third goal, as John Klingberg would cruise by him after a really strong play along the boards by Jamie Benn and a good quick pass by Esa Lindell to leave Perlini in the distant past. Klingberg went full Klingberg on his breakaway, beating Antti Raanta blocker side with relative ease. I like watching John Klingberg in alone on goaltenders.
Which Bishop save was your favorite? For me, the Bishop save on Michael Grabner with 10:56 remaining in the 3rd was huge, but especially because it saved the fourth line and third pairing from eating a minus after Ritchie and Hintz let Grabner get to the low slot. I’d expect to see the same players on Saturday (unless Nichushkin draws in) after that performance, but this is Jim Montgomery, not Ken Hitchcock. Who knows?
Finally, let’s take a trip down memory lane, but bear with me here. One other interesting moment came with 5:30 left in the game, as Klingberg and Faksa appeared to get crossed up on coverage, and Faksa was late to obey Klingberg’s gesticulations towards Alex Goligoski, who got a shot off that hit, of course, the post. Communication in a new system takes time, as Montgomery keeps reminding us. Alex Goligoski though, he had himself a game at both ends of the ice. With Demers and Ekman-Larrson getting nothing but on-the-fly and offensive zone starts for Arizona, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Kevin Connauton took the heavier DZ assignments. Goligoski played 20 minutes, but of a weird sort. If the Stars had one top line and two or even three third lines, then the Coyotes had one top pairing and two second pairings on defense.
Hey, imagine if the Stars had gotten Niklas Hjalmarsson back when they had Goligoski and Jason Demers, eh? That woulda been some kind of defense. The Coyotes also have Kevin Connauton, who is improbably still making a very nice NHL career for himself after being a sort of borderline NHLer when he came to Dallas. It’s always fun to see the players that stick in the league after seeing so many other who don’t. You may remember that Dallas acquired Connauton and a second-round pick from Vancouver for Derek Roy back at the 2013 deadline. Connauton would eventually be lost on waivers to Columbus in 2014, as the Stars had three other young blueliners knocking on the door: Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, and Jyrki Jokipakka. Of course, the Stars no longer have Connauton or those three defensemen.
Now, I’m not here to lambast the Stars for how they’ve handled their defense over the past five years, but let’s just drill down here. What do the Stars have to show for Nemeth, Jokipakka, Oleksiak and Connauton? A conditional fourth-round pick in 2019. Jokipakka was packaged with Brett Pollock and a second-rounder in the Kris Russell deal back in 2016, and Nemeth and Connauton were both claimed off waivers. Oleksiak, of course, garnered the draft pick. Nemeth and Connauton are useful players, but it’s hard to say that Dallas would really take either back and stick them in their top six right now if they could. Jokipakka has been playing in the KHL for two years now, and Jamie Oleksiak is trailing recent waiver-claim Connor Carrick in defensemen scoring, so he must not be missed too much.
But here’s the interesting thing that made me decide to force you all to read this meandering coda: do you know who the Flames picked with that second-rounder from Dallas in the Kris Russell trade?
Well, now you do. It’s Dillon Dube, the 20-year-old center who scored a hat trick for Calgary in the preseason. There is zero reason to care about this unless you just love alternate timeline stuff like I do, so please don’t take this as an indictment or anything. Besides, Dube played nine minutes, didn’t score, and ate a minus in his first game for Calgary, so probably nothing to worry about, so long as Dallas really gets a player with that fourth-rounder from Pittsburgh next summer. Maybe they’ll even pick up a future third-pairing defenseman.
Hockey is back. Go Stars.