Game Night Afterwords: Everything, Everyone Works on Dallas Stars Opening Night
Dallas experienced the sensation of someone having their back in a big game for the first time in a while.
My sister got married a couple weeks ago. It was fun and great and all the things it is supposed to be, but when you're with the family putting on the wedding, you usually need to be prepared to respond to a crisis or two in the days and hours leading up to (and during) the actual wedding.
Point in case: the day of, my brother and I found ourselves loading up a pickup truck with flowers, table decorations, carafes, and all the miscellaneous stuff that just ends up being "there" at weddings. The truck was overflowing in the bed and the cab, and it was not a very comfortable ride into the venue to drop everything off. We finally drove back home to change, and passed our dad frantically driving in himself. We found out later that he had the actual wedding dress in his car, and that photos were supposed to have to started about that same time.
Neither of us really minded all the chaos, though. When your family is hosting a huge party like that, you just sort of expect that someone will need help at some point. Sure, you hope it's not too much, and you hope that it's mostly minor emergencies, but it's part of the job description with family events, and that's okay.
The Dallas Stars asked a bit more of new starting goalie Antti Niemi last night than perhaps was fair. Racking up 37 saves against a high-octane offense like Pittsburgh means you're probably going to be stiff getting into the car the next day, but that's what they call the good kind of hurt.
When Niemi is cooking waffles Friday and reaches for the batter and winces ever so slightly, he'll remember how he pushed over to stop Chris Kunitz on that 2nd period power play feed from Sidney Crosby. When he kneels down to tie his shoes, he'll smile at how he somehow kept his pad squeezed on the ice to stop a hot Phil Kessel shot (also from Crosby) early in the third when the game could have changed. I don't know if he wears shoes or just those soccer-sandal things so many jocks love, but Niemi is a goalie and former Zamboni driver, so he can wear whatever he wants.
How many times last year did a game go awry because of a goal that just made you sigh? Those goals are going to happen occasionally no matter who's in net, but Dallas was forced to pay for little mistakes so many times last year that you just started to believe that was the way things worked. You give up a late scoring chance, your lead is cut. You commit a penalty to negate a power play, and you'll end up wishing you'd put up just one more goal to stave off the rush from the other team that inevitably led to a goal (or more) late.
Antti Niemi wasn't the only reason the Stars won last night, but man did he seem like the biggest one. Razor called him the best player for the Stars, which is a pretty common title to hear a goalie anointed with from our beloved color commentator.
Even if Niemi wasn't the best player in performance, he was certainly the most appreciated. We all want to appreciate our goalies, who just stand there and get hit with hard objects all night while the fun, sexy plays get made on the other end of the ice. We know they deserve credit in their imperfection, but danged if we aren't tired of begrudging them their due accolades with a wry expression on our face.
Niemi was fabulous tonight, and even though the Stars outchanced the Penguins 37-30, they asked quite a bit from their brand new older netminder. He gave them what they asked for, and he was given a cowboy hat in return for his efforts. That's either the most horribly inadequate thank-you gift or the very best one. At least it wasn't a stupid sword or something.
Everybody ropes, y'all. pic.twitter.com/9nXs6OgOE1— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) October 9, 2015
Speaking of catharsis, or at least now we are, how wonderfully satisfying was that Ales Hemsky goal? It's great when your scorers make a nice shot using the defender as a screen, but that goal (and the pretty assist to Mattias Janmark) just meant more because of Hemsky's season last year. Hemsky won't rack up two points per game this year, I don't think, but that's okay. We just need to know that he's still around, still capable of being that Ales Hemsky.
Aside from the points, Hemsky had two or three really nice "thinking two moves ahead" plays that nearly turned into something. His style of play isn't the brute-force dominance of Jamie Benn or the "Hi, Bye" flashiness ofTyler Seguin. It's something you can only order off menu, and tonight we overheard the person in line in front of us order it for the first time in a while. It's nice to know it's there.
Erin and others have said that Jason Spezza might end up being the primary beneficiary of the Stars' added top-six depth this year, and you could certainly see that tonight. He exudes this kind of lethal vulnerability that makes you doubt that he can outrun or overpower an aggressive defender, and then they try, and then he's made a pass that you would laugh at someone for theorizing at practice. Or he just decides to shoot when no one really worries about it, and the resultant impact to the crossbar may just mean that those GoDaddy.com ads the league will surely plaster onto the pipes next year won't fit quite right ever again.
It's nice to win the first game. Teams can't afford to think of them as "banked" in the sense that it gives them room for error down the road, but it's good to know you have them all the same. This team has expectations aplenty (and trepidation to match) surrounding it, but these are the sorts of statements that Make People Feel Good.
That's the point of watching hockey games, I think. (If it's not, then you probably loved lots of last season.) Janmark's goal made you feel good, and just seeing Nichushkin skating and trying and doing stuff was a joy. There's going to be a learning curve with Janmark and some re-acclimation with Nuke (as Kris Letang reminded him), but it's a lot better to start with joy and let realism creep in than to hold off depression as hope wanes. The Stars gave a sold-out crowd a whole mess o' joy tonight.
Two Jamie Benn moments didn't end up mattering. There was the missed backhand after he stole a puck and went in alone on Fleury only to slide it wide; and there was the no-goal/interference call which was meted out half-correctly. To absorb both of those without ending up caring is big statement in an opening night game against Pittsburgh. The Stars didn't actually have to have either goal (though Benn would get one later), and the alt-punk band Antti Niemi and the Penalty Killers did a great bend-without-breaking performance.
Speaking of which, Spezza on the penalty kill is weird. I don't totally get it, but it's probably better than Cody Eakin out there, so hooray for that. If Mike Modano could kill penalties, then Spezza has no excuse. He, like Mo, wins faceoffs, which is more helpful than usual on the PK. I'll never have objections to a high-paid player contributing on special teams, and at least it's not Tyler Seguin sliding in front of slapshots or anything.
On that note, the power play looks as marvelous as you could want, if perhaps overly fancy (oh no, they're too fun to watch now). I'm sure we'll see our share of slam-dunk goals that just leave the other team agog, but Pittsburgh is good, so two power play goals against them are great no matter where they come from.
What'll likely stick with me from this game is just how beautiful this team looks when everyone is up there skating and healthy. It's a rare shift that doesn't have someone(s) on the ice genuinely thrilling you when the puck is on their stick, and that's more than most teams can say.
Ironically, two of the newer acquisitions probably contributed the least excitement but that was okay in both cases. Johnny Oduya broke up a two-on-one early to keep the Spiral O' Doom from getting started, and Patrick Sharp spent much of the game going heads-up against the Crosby line with Seguin and Benn. When your team can score like Dallas, a somewhat boring night from those checking the top players is a gift and no mistake. Boring is probably the wrong word for this game.
Stream of consciousness: Malkin's high-stick was a karmic penalty to him if not an actual one; Dallas had a few solid "we're frantic and giving space to the other team!" moments that Niemi or the defense cleaned up, thankfully; the Penguins don't have a very good defense; Vernon Fiddler/Travis Moen/Patrick Eaves is a line of hockey players that will do what you ask of them; Jordie Benn had some nice moments in this one, and Jyrki Jokipakka looked like a good 6th defenseman with a hiccup or two at times. I'm sure he'll rotate out here and there, but can you really scratch him and Patrik Nemeth for Jamie Oleksiak given what we've seen? I still think we'll be down to seven defensemen by late November, barring health issues.
On the defense before we go, John Klingberg and Alex Goligoski held up magnificently against the Penguins tonight. They were slightly negative in CorsiLand if you care (along with the Stars' top forward line), but they generally managed to get the puck out and heading the right direction, and in Klingberg's case, that's usually going to mean very good opportunities for Dallas. Worries about his slight frame holding up against tough forechecking proved unfounded, though Sidney Crosby did shove Klingberg's head into the back of the net during a scrum. That was the only thing Crosby put on net all night.
Final thought: Phil Kessel will probably score a bunch of goals this season because he's Phil Kessel and he plays with Crosby, but I don't think he'll want to see Antti Niemi again for a while.