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Game 1 Afterwords: Live-Fire Exercise Turns Deadly Serious

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The good news is that all three injured players should be okay in a matter of weeks; the bad news is three players were injured. Also, the team lost.

Boston Bruins v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I don’t feel the way I’ve ever felt

I know

I’m gonna smile and not get worried

I try but it shows

***

Jim Montgomery has talked for a while now about how he doesn’t see lines or defense pairs as things set in stone; he instead prefers to mix and match depending on the opponent and situation.

Well, the Stars certainly had ample opportunity to mix and match Thursday night, as they were three skaters short for a good portion of their first game of the season.

Before anything else, we have to express utter gratitude that all three players are projected to recover in a matter of weeks. Seeing Roman Polák lying completely still on the ice for far too long brought back some very unpleasant memories, and it is with a great sigh of relief that we can rejoice along with Polák that he was not more seriously injured.

Blake Comeau also took a gruesome pill, getting caught in the head with a deflected puck. Sometimes fans can get frustrated at players for making a bad play with the puck, but when you realize that it was a deflected pass that dealt Comeau a rough blow to the grill--and led to a lower-body injury that I would review more closely if I weren’t in the wonderful world of Dallas TV blackout zones now, preventing my access to NHL.tv’s recording of the game for some hours yet--then you realize just how hard and fast these guys are moving the puck, all the time, with disaster constantly nipping at their heels. It is an altogether different and incomprehensible world out there on the ice, even as we try to parse it from afar. Being in the thick of that sort of pace will change a person, but hopefully not on the exterior like it did to Comeau. Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t “How could this happen to three guys in one game?” but instead, “How does this not happen all the time?” Best wishes to Comeau as he recovers on both ends.

If you’re Jason Dickinson, it might feel like it does happen all the time. Sporting fresh stitches from yet another stick to the face last week, Dickinson left this one after taking a cross check, which immediately makes me think of the back injury that sidelined Dickinson for a few weeks around the turn of the calendar last season. Of course, we can’t be sure of this, but it’s the guess I have, for now.

As far as the way forward, losing Comeau and Polák at once is a tough blow to the group dynamic of this team. Both players are highly respected for what they bring as people, let alone as hockey players. Losing those two voices in the dressing room is no small thing to the psyche of a hockey team looking to prove last year wasn’t just a Vezina-fueled fluke. The place will be a little quieter for their absences, and it’s up to the rest of the team to respond without the in-game adrenaline that comes from seeing your guys leaving the ice under someone else’s power.

The Dickinson injury is the one that might have more of a long-term effect for the team than the other two, given both the uncertainty of his prognosis and the fact that Dickinson really did look poised to grab hold of a top-six role this season two years after being shuttled back to the AHL every couple of weeks because his coach categorically didn’t trust his youth and style of play.

So he begins the year on the shelf, and you hope we’ll see the same Dickinson when he comes back that we saw the rest of 2019. Certainly you hope he won’t miss a beat, but hope is the best we have when dealing with the reality of an injury. The team needs Dickinson, especially with the increasing likelihood that no other wingers in the Stars’ system are ready to step into that role. Rhett Gardner and Nick Caamano are the likely call-ups to fill Dickinson and Comeau’s spots for now, but neither of those players can bring the sort of game Dickinson had, right now. Hopefully he returns sooner rather than later, but any time a player needs x-rays, you have to slow your roll a bit.

For a team already so thin and cap-crunched that they effectively started the season with only one healthy scratch (Taylor Fedun), these injuries are going to make Jim Nill’s tough job even tougher. With the Stars already being about a million dollars short of their full cap allotment thanks to bonus overages from last season, this rash of injuries makes such an overage even more likely to happen again next year. Being an NHL general manager is tough even when things go well. When your drafts don’t pan out consistently and your NHL players get hurt on day one? Well, I probably sleep better than they do for most of the year. It’s hard to put a price on that.

***

Mike Heika had an interesting note a few days back in his piece on the Stars’ emphasis on improved offense this year:

”I do think it’s important that the team can’t change the fabric of how they play,” Stevens said. “They’re a really good defensive team, they’ve got really good goaltending, and you don’t want to give that up. Instead, you just want to create more while you continue to play to your identity.”

While you admittedly should never read too much into preseason quotes from new assistant coaches, I will say that the first period of this game looked an awful lot like a tentative team that wasn’t sure how aggressive they were allowed to be; or, I dunno, perhaps just a team facing the reigning Eastern Conference champions who weren’t ready to play top-caliber hockey from the opening horn. It’s too early to draw meaningful conclusions about what Montgomery Hockey is going to look like in year two, but the Bruins certainly seemed more than ready for the Stars’ game plan, which was not an encouraging sign for a team whose coach admitted that he was still trying to figure out how to solve their slow starts for a large portion of last season.

The slow starts weren’t limited to the offense, though. Dallas had a mixed preseason, all told, but the two big positives the team took away from their warm-up contests were the goaltending and the penalty kill, both of which failed them at the first opportunity Thursday night.

Credit where it’s due, though: an Andrew Cogliano turnover at his own blue line led to the Brett Ritchie chance, and yeah, Andrej Sekera could have telescoped out a bit more with his stick, but man, if there’s one guy fans would hope Ben Bishop wouldn’t allow a howler to in this game, it would be Brett Ritchie, who surely had a good stack of money on the board going into a game against a team that let him go for nothing.

It wasn’t a great shot, unless Ritchie knows some secret weakness of Bishop’s that no one else has figured out and chose to exploit it. Bishop just didn’t react well to his first save attempt of the game, and the first period only got worse from there.

As for Danton Heinen’s goal on the power play, you have to give Boston credit: they run an excellent power play with great movement and entries, and they made the Stars’ PK look slow and passive. No shame in giving up a goal in the corner through a screen, but you’d have liked to see a bit more of an assertive effort from a facet of the Stars’ team that has been a de facto point of pride over the last year and counting. When you can’t draw power plays yourself, you sort of need an excellent PK, and the Stars certainly could have used one tonight, even if the overall numbers (including four straight power plays to Boston before the officials decided to start evening things up) ended up looking at least a bit more encouraging.

The PK didn’t lose them the game, however, as the Bruins didn’t make it 3-0 on the late first-period power play, although goodness knows they probably should have.

Nonetheless, two Boston goals would stand up, which is not an encouraging sign for a team professing to have spent a lot of energy on improving the offense. The excuses are plentiful and perhaps even reasonable, given the injuries and opponent and sundry other things. But if you hear people screaming about the same old problems hurting the Stars, you can understand where they’re coming from, at least a little.

What I will never abide is the number of fans who jump to pillory John Klingberg the instant he makes a mistake with the puck. The one ugly one last night came in his defensive zone, I understand it, sure; slender, flashy players losing the puck just make fans angry, because it feels careless and irresponsible. “Surely we would be less careless with the puck, unlike that arrogant showboat of a player, hurting his own team instead of making the safe play. Why don’t you finish a check for once, huh???”

It was a little humorous (to me, at least) that the second Stars power play came after Klingberg lost the puck trying to skate it out of his own zone (instead of throwing it up the ice to well-covered forwards) to surrender a 2-on-1 chance for David Patsrnak that Ben Bishop and company somehow kept out, only to see the Stars draw a penalty at the other end.

This is the same Klingberg, mind, who scored the series-winning goal against Nashville. Who brought life to a decaying Stars’ defense corps the instant he arrived in late 2014. A fifth-round pick who struggled with doubt and injuries coming up through the league, Klingberg continually provides world-class plays that just make games fun. He had some unreal moves that led to successful breakouts with possession last night, and he is still, for my money, as good in the offensive zone as any blueliner in the league. Scorn him at your own peril, Stars fans.

Players like John Klingberg are gifts to a team like Dallas, and hearing fans call into the postgame show ready to trade Klingberg is just tragic. I’m sure every fanbase has reactionary folks like that, but I wonder if the arrival of Miro Heiskanen hasn’t made us complacent about how good Klingberg is. Every other defenseman had some forgettable or outright bad moments in this one, and Klingberg’s good massively outweighs his bad. Hopefully the season will wear on, and fans will begin to remember that.

Klingberg is even getting PK time ahead of Jamie Oleksiak, who had a roughy giveaway of his own at the offensive blue line. I recall reading or hearing someone with the Stars talk about how Oleksiak was going to be given more shorthanded ice time this season, but I can’t find it right now. I had thought that the Stars reacquired Oleksiak last year because they wanted him to fill that bottom-pairing PK role where size and decent skating can compensate for the deficiencies that led to them trading him to Pittsburgh in the first place, but Jim Montgomery doesn’t appear to be interested in using him that way. Oleksiak pretty much got seven shifts per period, even with the Stars’ down a defenseman after Polák’s injury. His best moment might have been right before Seguin hit the bar with around 14:20 left in the 3rd, when Oleksiak carried the puck into the zone himself and paid dearly to keep possession. It was a nice move, but also a massive hit. Early days yet, but this sure feels a lot like two autumns ago, when Ken Hitchcock went from praising the big defenseman as a top-four staple in the preseason to more or less forgetting about him in a few weeks.

As for the newest Stars defenseman, Sekera looked a step slow, and as we said, perhaps could have stepped up a bit more strongly on the Ritchie goal. He also fanned on a puck in the offensive zone that killed the vibe just as the top line was starting to get going, and you remember things like that, even if they aren’t definitive, you know? Sekera played 21 minutes in a frenetic game, and it’s probably unfair to ask him to look like a top-four guy after what he went through in Edmonton the last year or so. Still, we can only deduce from the available data, and I would say that the evidence last night was decidedly mixed, at best, against one of the best teams in the league. Something to keep an eye on.

Joe Pavelski on the top line also looked a bit “off” at times, though his puck movement down low was a lot more encouraging, even if there was some deference going on. Alex Radulov got moved back up there later in the game with the full press going, and you can see how Seguin and Benn are more accustomed to playing with a great skater on that wing, whether it be Mats Zuccarello, Radulov, or even, yes, Cody Eakin. I think they’ll figure it out, though. Pavelski is plenty good enough for them to find an effective synergy all their own.

The other notable name was Denis Gurianov, who continued his preseason pattern of making you think he is about to break through on one shift, but then looking nervous and uncertain on the next. He wasn’t ready for a Klingberg pass early in the second that bounced off his tape right in front of the net, and while he does seem more comfortable being the playmaker than the shooter, the Stars need him to be reliable and, er, suppliable. Or at least to supply offense, of some sort.

Mattias Janmark, for his part, showed that playing with Roope Hintz is the cure for what ails your offensive woes these days, finding Hintz during a really poor Zdeno Chara change to notch a primary assist. To think that Hintz went from being a borderline candidate to make the roster last year to being perhaps the Stars’ biggest threat to score this opening night...well, it’s pretty great. But for those hoping that Gurianov might be in a similar spot, I would caution you that Hintz was being billed as the real gem of that draft over two years ago; the reality might just be that he’s a really, really good young player, and that doesn’t necessitate every borderline roster candidate being just as viable a top-sixer.

Janmark, though. Yes, his chance at a two-point night founded when he couldn’t find the net on a great chance in slot shortly after Gurianov’s chance early in the middle frame; but those would sting even more if not for the Tyler Seguin crossbar in the third period after a fortunate bounce put him in the danger zone. Again, it’s too early to worry about bad luck, and also bad luck isn’t something you should ever worry about, by definition. Seguin is a great player, and he will be great, as usual.

By the way, did you know Seguin was a year younger than Roope Hintz is now (22) when the Stars acquired him six years ago? Let’s hope Hintz’s mid-twenties see more playoff hockey than Seguin’s did.

Jamie Benn is so much fun to watch when you can tell he’s fresh, and he had his moments in this one, even if 30 years old is going to ask him to pick his spots a bit more. He had one particularly gorgeous move in the neutral zone to lose F2 (I think) and gain the blue line, and you like to see Benn doing Dainty Barbarian things right off the hop. His against-the-grain wrister with about six minutes left in the second period (imagine a GIF here) evoked Modano memories immediately, and I am reminded that it is good to see Jamie Benn shooting again.

For some reason, Benn was in front of the net on the Stars’ first power play for a bit, but Pavelski took that spot over the next time ‘round. That’s as it should, given both players’ skill sets. The Stars should have a top-ten power play with Klingberg, Pavelski, Benn, Seguin, and Hintz or Radulov on the job (last night it was Hintz on the first unit, but I’d prefer Radulov there, ever so slightly). He can do a lot of things well from that half-wall spot, whether it’s a one-timer, helping with zone entry, protecting the puck, or taking a shot himself.

Alex Radulov could also stand to do fewer things, in the eyes of the officials. Both penalties he took were unnecessary and of the Over-try variety, while Mattias Janmark’s interference call was a bit more specious. But the Stars didn’t lose this game because of penalty calls for or against. Ben Bishop kept them in it after stumbling early, and the Stars had their chance in the back half of the game to grab a point. Sometimes, the other team wins.

As for the goal-scorer, Hintz turned the corner on Charlie McAvoy early in the game for the Stars’ only real chance of the first period, and that’s a good reminder of just how good Hintz might be this year. Much as the Stars have gone astray at times by focusing too much on size, Hintz is a reminder that speed and size are a really beautiful combination when they have the hands and hockey IQ to use them. Hintz got in behind the defense for his goal, which is something players like Janmark and even Blake Comeau can do, too. But Hintz put a lethal shot more or less bar-down past an on-his-game Tuukka Rask, and that’s what separates Sometimes from Usually.

Justin Dowling also made his presence known, creating some good opportunities and even helping to draw the first Dallas power play after some good work with Tyler Seguin. Dowling scaled up the lineup after Dickinson and Comeau’s injuries, though it was Radek Faksa whose minutes really got juiced with a thin bench. Faksa and Benn both played around 20 minutes, which makes me wonder if Montgomery is going to be managing Benn’s minutes throughout the season while also looking to reward lower-line players with more, in turn.

The goalies probably got a bit underappreciated in this one, thanks to whatever doofus chose the three stars last night. The best example of that came when the game was really humming later on, when Ben Bishop made a solid stop on a breakaway against the insufferably spelled Karson Kuhlman, only to have Rask’s best save of the game come right after, when he robbed Roope Hintz with the glove on a labeled shot from the low slot.

***

Finally, here are the results of the Stars’ last seven home openers:

2013-14: 4-2 L, Florida

2014-15: 3-2 L (SO), Chicago***

2015-16: 3-0 W, Pittsburgh***

2016-17: 4-2 W, Anaheim*

2017-18: 2-1 L, Vegas**

2018-19: 3-0 W, Arizona

2019-20: 2-1 L, Boston^

***eventual Stanley Cup champions

**eventual Western Conference champions

*back-to-back division champions

^reigning Eastern Conference champions

It’s arbitrary, but Dallas’s relatively easy opener last year was an aberration from most of the Jim Nill Era Opening Nights we’ve seen. Even that 4-2 win against Anaheim was an extremely fortunate victory, with Dallas getting out-shot almost 2-to-1. And of course the L against Vegas saw Ben Bishop get hurt right out of the gate, bookending his injury at the end of the year that some blamed for the Stars’ collapse late in the season. So, hey, maybe Dallas just enjoys starting the season out with the biggest challenge they can find. Certainly St. Louis will be no less formidable a foe in game number two. I might suggest sending them an anonymous barrel or ten of belated congratulatory champagne tonight. Just a little hockey strategy tip.