DENVER -- When the tacos at the pregame meal at the Pepsi Center turn out to be the highlight of the night for the Dallas Stars, well, you know this is one of those games everyone with the team will be thankful there's nothing meaningful at stake except some pride.
The Stars allowed goals on the first three shots of Thursday's 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche to even their preseason record at 1-1. They head to St. Louis Saturday for the third of six exhibition contests -- all against Central Division opponents.
Here's a look at what turned out to be a mess in the mountains.
Video: Kari's thoughts following exhibition loss
1) Lehtonen's lament
In his first preseason action, veteran Kari Lehtonen was victimized for three Avalanche goals by the time the game was 5:09 old. Lehtonen seemed surprised by David Warsofsky's rising shot 2:11 in, gave up a power play goal to Sven Andrighetto that was more a coverage issue than a goaltending one, and then couldn't find Sergei Boikov's long shot through traffic from just inside the Dallas blue line.
And this all before Lehtonen made his first save. Yikes.
Could be worse, right? This could have been Oct. 24, which is the next time the Stars will visit the Pepsi Center, and with real points on the line and real places in the standings to consider.
Still, Lehtonen seemed to have perspective on the outing.
"You just need to keep grinding and remind yourself that this is exhibition and try to focus on just get used to playing again," said Lehtonen who finished with 16 stops on 20 shots. "Of course you want to learn from the negative stuff and remind yourself about the positive things. Just like after any other game. That was nice to play again after a long time. Just a tough way to start but we kept battling there."
And kudos to Lehtonen for denying Gabriel Landeskog on a penalty shot in the second period, as Landeskog, a Swede, tried to replicate former Avs great Peter Forsberg's famous penalty-shot move from the 1994 Olympics. But Lehtonen kept his left pad in place and denied the effort by the Avs' captain.
2) Another penalty parade
It's become fashionable around the NHL this preseason to quibble about the league's overzealous calling of slashing calls and imposing penalties for faceoff infractions. But the Stars are fooling themselves if they think that the majority of calls that went against them Thursday were the product of anything but their own lack of discipline.
Antoine Roussel drilling an Avs defender in the offensive zone away from the play is a penalty every day. The Avs scored their fourth goal on the ensuring power play.
Overall, the Stars have been shorthanded for 32:42 in two preseason games, including 13:58 on Thursday night, and that simply won't cut it.
The Stars did kill off a lengthy 5-on-3 that was set up by the first faceoff delay of game penalty called against them. But there's lots of work both in terms of killing penalties and not taking so many. Head coach Ken Hitchcock believes these issues are not issues that should plague the team long-term.
"I think it's the same penalty," Hitchcock said. "It's out of position from turning the puck over, trying to get back into the play penalties. They're correctable. To me that's not near the issue as the tempo and the tenacity on the puck is a much bigger issue."
3) It's the NHL for a reason
Hitchcock said this was a "reward" game for guys who had worked hard in camp, had perhaps surprised the coaching staff and deserved a chance to play in NHL preseason action. But with all of the Stars' top-end offensive talent back in Dallas, Thursday's game illustrated that sometimes the line between being NHL ready and not is not so thin.
The Avalanche, the worst team in the NHL by a country mile last season, iced a lineup that included disgruntled Matt Duchene, Landeskog, former No 1-overall pick Nail Yakupov, and former Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov.
Also producing impressive efforts for a Central Division foe, that most observers believe are destined to finish seventh in the division again this season, were collegiate free-agent Alexander Kerfoot and former Buffalo prospect J.T. Compher.
The results spoke for themselves -- at least on this night.
"Well, I think we were guilty of giving the puck away that led to all their transition at the start of the game," Hitchcock said. "They were quicker -- quicker in thought, quicker on pucks. Quicker everywhere, and much stronger on the puck, too. They deserved to beat us."
4) R.J. makes his return
Between Feb. 21, 2016 and Thursday night, veteran forward R.J. Umberger had played in exactly one NHL game. In his first preseason contest and his first since joining the Stars on a tryout basis this fall Umberger logged 16:18 in ice time with three shots on net. He was a regular on the team's power play and penalty kill.
"Yeah. It's a long time," Umberger said. "First off, it was fun to get out there and be in a competitive environment. It was pretty much what I thought it was going to be. It was going to be an adjustment for me; quick pace. From summer training to training camp's a step up, to that scrimmage (in Cedar Park) is another step and then this game is just another step up again."
"I think there was some good things out there and definitely some things I can improve on if I get in again," he said.
Video: Hitchcock on preseason battle in Denver
5) Off the top
Off the top of our heads, guys who made an impression: Julius Honka was better in his second straight preseason outing. Thought Devin Shore did a nice job trying to create offense and finished with an even plus/minus rating and three shots on goal. Roope Hintz, too, was engaged and scored the team's only goal with the Stars on a 5-on-3 power play in the third period.
But at the end of the night, the best takeaway from this game is that it means zero -- except maybe to the guys for whom this will be the final chance at sticking with the big club.
As of Friday morning, Hitchcock will basically cut down his squad to 30 main combatants for roster spots with the remaining 20 or so players skating in a different group.
"I felt that this was a real opportunity for guys to extend their roles, killing penalties, playing on the power play, getting quality ice time," Hitchcock said. "And that's what training camp's about you either grab it or you don't. Today we had a lot of guys that didn't grab it. So it puts us into a different evaluation. That's what it's about."
Starting with Friday's groupings, "some people might be a little surprised," the coach warned.
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.