When an NHL team plays a road game, the home team generally accommodates them with a private box near the press box. In most cases, this is a quiet area that you wouldn’t be able to find unless you knew where it was. In Philadelphia, it’s an open box above the far side of the press box, and in the case of the Dallas Stars, it was directly over my left shoulder.
If you’re ever at a Blues game and you find yourself frustrated by the fans yelling clichés behind you, or if you yourself are the yeller and you feel guilt, I hope that you find solace in knowing that the Dallas Stars management is right there with you. “On it!” “Coming hard!” “Get a shot!” If you’ve heard someone yell it during a power play, it turns out at least some NHL brass yells it too. Maybe that’s why they tolerate the “BANG!” guy.
The Dallas Stars were snug in the middle of my three games in three days swing in mid-December, and an afternoon in the friendly and be-pretzeled confines of the Flyers press box revealed some exciting possibilities for the future while simultaneously exposing the obvious flaws.
Flaws are more fun, and Antoine Roussel is nothing but a flaw on skates. As Travis Hughes, the NHL network manager at SB Nation so eloquently put it on Twitter, “lol imagine having to root for Antoine Roussel.” Roussel has a long history as an agitator who backs down in a hurry when he’s agitated back, and he did not do anything in this game to live that reputation down.
Going in to this game, Roussel was leading the league in penalty minutes. That’s still true today, as his 87 PIM lead second place Matt Martin by 17, or three majors and a hook. Amusingly, Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk also has 70, proving that blood is indeed thicker than the NHL rule book.
While Martin is an aggressive fighter and Tkachuk is a young player pushing the boundaries of the league, Roussel is an experienced veteran in the art of taking cheap shots and avoiding real confrontations. In this game, he engaged Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas until he realized that Gudas is capable of pummeling him into tiny little water droplets. He later made a point to extend his knee and create some dangerous contact with Gudas, while breezily skating away rather than dropping the gloves.
The Stars have struggled with serious injuries up front this season. Jiri Hudler was signed to provide offensive depth but has been out with a mysterious virus for much of the year. Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky, key parts of the Stars’ secondary scoring, are each out for the season with serious injuries.
This has resulted in the Stars often icing what I’ve decided to call their “All Our Good Players” line, featuring Jason Spezza in between Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Benn will miss the game in St. Louis, putting a further dent in the scoring fortunes of the Stars.
These injuries, however, have created an opportunity for a familiar and much loved (by me, at least) face. Adam Cracknell has managed to extend his journeyman career by carving out a niche in Dallas, and was a contributor on the scoresheet with an assist on Devin Shore’s goal to lead off the scoring in the first.
One area where the Stars may have expected some strength is from the youth on their back end, but the growing pains for defensemen like Esa Lindell and John Klingberg have been acute. Johnny Oduya has also struggled with injury issues this season, thus limiting some of the stabilizing force that he’s well known for.
Klingberg in particular has been a source of frustration for many Stars fans. He was a threat from the back line last year, but now he appears to be an equal threat to their back line. Indeed, in this game, it seemed as though he had only gear, and the transition game was struggling. While he led many rushes into the offensive zone, he struggled mightily to recover and handle his defensive assignments, leaving the Stars vulnerable on the rush.
That vulnerability would be aggressively exploited in the person of Brayden Schenn. The Flyers center took great advantage of the attention paid to linemates Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, and his hat trick would prove too much for the Stars to overcome.
As with last year in the playoff series against the Blues, the Stars goaltending remains a serious concern. The starter for this game was a subject of much debate before it was announced. Kari Lehtonen came into this game with a 1-10 career record, a goals- against above three, and a save percentage below 90.0 against Philadelphia, and yet was still judged to be a superior option to the struggling Antti Niemi.
Aside from one impressive breakout where he found Roussel with a sharp pass off the glass, Lehtonen did very little to distinguish himself in this game either. While he had relatively little support from his defensemen, he also neglected to live up to the old adage which claims a goalie sometimes needs to steal a game. These were unfamiliar and unusual environs for Dallas, and they didn’t receive the necessary backstopping to overcome them.
Ultimately, this year’s Stars resemble last year’s, but with many more flaws in areas that may previously have been considered strengths. If the Blues are able to avoid their recent trend of playing to the level of their opponents and can instead elevate after a poor showing against Carolina, a Saturday night game in St. Louis should prove to be a rough road stop for Dallas.