On any other given night, Stars fans would have left the American Airlines Center with their heads hung low and grumbling explicatives. No matter how good a team is, at no point can you ever give a potential Cup contender seven opportunities on the man-advantage and expect to win. That’s what happened Thursday night as the Chicago Blackhawks clawed their way back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Stars, 3-2 in overtime.
But this night was about celebration. Fans finally realized that after kicking aside 38 of 41 shots (one of those came from the stick of his own defenseman), Kari Lehtonen should be considered “elite.” For the evening, Lehtonen was perfect 5-on-5, stopping all 27 shots that came his way. It was the penalties that ultimately doomed Kari and sunk the Stars.
However, the news of the night which prompted a virtual celebration in the streets via social media was the signing of Jamie Benn to a 5-year, $5.25 million contract. Benn, who was a restricted free agent had spent most of the lockout playing in Germany and since arriving back in North America, has been skating with his old WHL team in British Columbia.
The Stars will most definitely benefit from having Benn back in the lineup. The offseason acquisitions of Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney had Stars fans and staff setting potential lines in their heads as dreams of “superlines” began to take shape. Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn and Jaromir Jagr is the most likely match of the top line which will shift Derek Roy, who has been masterful in his role as top center down to the second line with Whitney and Michael Ryder. The true question will be if coach Glen Gulutzan chooses to keep Tom Wandell or Cody Eakin up with the big club, as the third line will likely remain Brendan Morrow, Vern Fiddler and Eric Nystrom. Eakin would provide a true scoring touch to a line of Ryan Garbutt and Reilly Smith, however, these last two games in which Cody was on the 2nd line, he has proven that he has earned greater than 4th line ice time.
Stars fans should, however, caution themselves if they believe that the Benn signing will punch their ticket into the playoffs. Although puck possession should greatly improve from Jamie’s stick handling skills, Jamie alone cannot prevent 40-50 shots getting through to Kari each game. Though you can count on Jamie’s aggressiveness creating penalties, the fact that of the 7 penalties the Stars took, 4 of which were in the offensive zone.
In a shortened season, back-up goalies are a commodity. However, if you force their play by emptying the tank of your number one, then you’re in essence, loading the gun yourself. Kari is a competitor. He wants to play every minute of every game. Obviously when you’re basically playing a game every other night, toss in travel days in there, it is near impossible to play as often as he’d like. But if the Stars continue to allow 40-50 shots a night, Kari will wear down much faster and then the season will hinge on the ability of Richard Bachman and rookie Cristopher Nilstorp.
Last night was an amazing “moral” victory. Craig Ludwig said on the post game show that this was a “measuring stick game,” to see how the Stars match up against one of the, if not the best team in the West. The Stars were right there for most of the night. If the 2011-2012 Stars stay off the ice and don’t take horrific penalties at the absolute worst times (I’m looking at you, Captain), then Dallas will make the playoffs. Dallas can still make the playoffs if they play the way they did last night however, it will be a short run. Those kinds of nights against the best teams in the league will blow up, especially in a 7-game series.
But next week, the Dallas Stars will be a complete team for the first time since the end of last year. The only injury of note is Aaron Rome who should actually be making his return Saturday against the St. Louis Blues. Jagr missed part of the 3rd and all of the overtime with an undisclosed injury, but he’s proven with his play that it will take a great deal to keep him off the ice. For the first time in who knows how long, Dallas has explosive players that will occupy all 4 lines. They just need to find a way to quit relying on their explosive goaltender each night.