More than 300 days later, after a bubble Stanley Cup Final run and a COVID-19 outbreak that forced the start of the season to be delayed over a week, the Dallas Stars finally returned to the American Airlines Center. In front of 4,212 fans in a limited capacity arena open as the pandemic rages on, the Stars got to celebrate their Western Conference championship by raising the banner to the rafters.
But as the puck dropped for the opening faceoff, the team’s sights were set squarely on getting back there. “Unfinished business” as they’ve been using in the days leading up to the season opener. It’s a tall order, considering how very not likely it is for teams to make back-to-back runs at winning it all. Made even harder for the Stars, considering that their new division mates are none other than the team that kept them from achieving the ultimate glory last fall.
They made a strong statement tonight that they’re intent to get back there. They combined scoring and good defense, with a dose of Anton Khudobin magic when they needed it, to result in a 7-0 pummeling of the Nashville Predators. In a season filled with nothing but divisional games, every win could mean a big swing for those teams bunched around you in the standings. Dallas got their first chance to bank some for themselves and walked away with the full freight.
It wasn’t a start-to-finish beauty of a game, though.
After so much time off, and no matter how much skating is done in practices, it takes a little bit of time to get up to game speed. In the first period, the Stars looked like a team that hadn’t had any preseason action (like is usually part of a season) or game play while the rest of the league got underway. “When your team is off, you’re going to need your goaltender,” head coach Rick Bowness said after the game. “we certainly needed Dobby in that first period.”
There were missed passes and several instances where two Stars players ended up in the same area of the ice, both in the offensive zone and the defensive zone. It was generally just not crisp hockey. Khudobin, however, picked up right where he left off in the Edmonton bubble. He was cool and collected in net, and put up the brick wall to allow the team in front of him time to get into the flow of a NHL game again.
The second period provided the Stars with the chance to kick-start their offense after keeping the game at goose eggs in the first 20 minutes. A 5-on-3 power play featured John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, who wore out the defenders and opened up the space necessary for Joe Pavelski, sporting a fresh “A” in the absence of the injured Tyler Seguin, to fire home the opening goal of the season.
Dallas followed it up with six more goals.
After the 5-on-3 expired came Alexander Radulov’s first goal of the season on the remaining power play. Six minutes later Denis Gurianov got on the board on the power play, followed four minutes later by an even-strength effort off of the most ridiculous between-the-legs redirect by Radulov. Esa Lindell added salt to the wound with an unassisted effort on a shorthanded goal, slipping the puck through Juuse Saros’ five hole and effectively ending his outing.
Pekka Rinne would step into net to start the third period, while the Stars stepped on the ice without their captain Jamie Benn. After an awkward collision in the second period, Benn sat on the bench before being helped by trainers down the tunnel. He stopped, and then eventually continued on putting weight on the leg by himself. He would play another shift, as he was on the ice for a power play goal not long after the hit. However, he missed some of the last period of the second and all of the third period with a lower-body injury.
Bowness had no update on Benn after the game, so we’ll have to wait to see if he takes the ice for practice tomorrow or if the team orders any additional testing.
Dallas tacked on two more power play goals in the final frame, one courtesy of a bank shot by Roope Hintz that deflected off Pavelski and in and the other a redirect of a floating shot by John Klingberg that hit Joel Kiviranta on the way into the net. As Radulov said after the game, sometimes you get lucky, but the team won’t question it — they’ll take it.
The Stars know not every night will come as easy. They had some adventures on the penalty kill as well as at least two posts that saved some goals by the Nashville Predators. They also won’t get all of the calls they did tonight, partly because things tend to not be called as tightly as the season progresses and partly because the Predators did a lot of it to themselves tonight. There’s also some concern Dallas couldn’t get a lot going at even strength (partly a reflection of the fact that there wasn’t a whole lot of that game condition from the second period on.)
But for tonight, the Stars can take the luck that was on their side and be happy that it resulted in two points in their bank. Tomorrow they can work on fixing some of those concerns and hoping for good news for their captain’s health.
The season is officially off to the races, and every point counts, especially in this crazy condensed year.