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Burnside: Five takeaways from Stars' thrashing of Buffalo

Dallas played arguably its 'best 60 minutes' of the season Saturday, and it paid off in a 5-1 rout

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars found the perfect tonic in forgetting Thursday's disappointing loss in Winnipeg. That turned out to be the Buffalo Sabres, as the Stars beat up on their underachieving opponent by a 5-1 count Saturday night to run their home record to 5-1 on the season.

Here are some musings and meanderings on a contest that turned out to be surprisingly easy for the 8-6-0 Stars.

Video: Smith shines in Stars victory

 

1. The Hitchcock jinx? What jinx?

Okay, there's really no Ken Hitchcock jinx.

Really.

Even though Julius Honka was recently dispatched to the American Hockey League after receiving early praise from Hitchcock through training camp. And Jamie Oleksiak has been a healthy scratch for two straight games, and four of seven after he looked to be penciled in to the top six defensively when he was lauded by the Stars' head coach early in the regular season.

So, what were we to make of Hitchcock's effusive praise of rookie Gemel Smith. whom he described as the most-improved player on the team? Not to worry.

Apparently, Smith isn't the superstitious type.

After impressing without making a dent on the score sheet in recent games, Smith was a catalyst to the Stars' four-goal, first-period explosion that decided this game early. His dynamic rush down the right side, less than four minutes after the Stars had taken a 1-0 lead, ended up with Radek Faksa tapping home a juicy rebound to make it 2-0.

Then, less than three minutes later, it was Smith down the left side, slowing and finding Stephen Johns jumping into the play, to give the Stars more than enough cushion to chase Buffalo netminder Robin Lehner. 

"He's a hockey player," Hitchcock said of Smith. "He acts like a hockey player and plays like a hockey player. You don't have to tell him twice. He has a feel for the game and does a lot of things that just help you win hockey games. He's underrated offensively and he's competitive and really good on the boards. He builds you good minutes every night."

So what if Smith was unclear about the meaning of 'moxie' -- another term of endearment Hitchcock has used for the 23-year-old.

"I asked a couple of guys. I have no idea, to be honest, but I'm pretty sure it means something good," Smith said with a smile.

Needless to say, having the confidence of the coaching staff is huge for Smith, who was drafted 104th overall in 2012 and got into 17 games for Dallas last year, collecting three goals and three assists.

"It's a good feeling knowing the coaches are happy with you and definitely gives me confidence. I just try to do what they ask and play a simple game and try to energize the boys as much as I can," Smith said.

Video: BUF@DAL: Elie puts the rebound through Lehner's legs

 

2. It's really a simple game

Like Smith said, simplicity is sometimes a beautiful thing.

For a team that was coming off a 2-3 road trip, during which they managed to win both their games by 2-1 counts and got waxed 5-2 by Winnipeg in the finale, there were lots of questions coming into this contest -- not the least of which was where was the Stars' energy level and confidence.

Turns out, keeping the feet moving and making simple plays was a recipe for recovery.

The team's first goal was as simple as it gets with Antoine Roussel racing to a loose puck, after a poor play by Lehner and the Buffalo defense, then putting the puck on net, where Remi Elie got his first of the season, poking home a rebound.

The Faksa goal was similar. Smith's shot bounced toward Lehner, who couldn't control, and Faksa claimed the rebound.

If you're a cynic, you can say, well, if the Stars got to play the 4-8-2 Sabres every night, they'd go 80-2 (or something like that).

And you can blame Lehner, who allowed three goals on seven shots before giving way to Chad Johnson.

Fair enough.

But the Stars don't make the schedule. They just play it, and on this night, playing simple paid huge dividends. 

"I look at it from the standpoint that this was a tough game," Hitchcock said. "Guys are tired and we've had no break and we won't get another break until after Monday's game. The guys had a great attitude going into today."

Play simple and manage the game.

Again, sounds simple.

"It's hard when you are coming off the road to have a comeback game," Hitchcock said. "Those are really difficult. We put the foot down right away, got the lead and then we were able to sit on it and manage the game as it went on, which is a really good sign."

Defenseman John Klingberg, who had three assists and now has 14 points on the season, said the ingredients that went into Saturday's win were something the team had discussed after returning from the road trip.

"We responded the way we needed to," he said. "We had a meeting (Friday) about how things need to be better. We cleaned a lot of that up today. We held onto pucks, got into more battles, so that was a huge win for us. It was probably the best 60 minutes we have played this season. It was a great game for us."

Video: BUF@DAL: Seguin blasts one-timer past Johnson for PPG

 

3. Looking ahead

Speaking of Monday, the Stars were no doubt focused solely on the final 47:09 of the game -- even when Tyler Seguin ripped a shot past Johnson on the power play to make it 4-0.

Not us. We stopped thinking in terms of the outcome of this game at that very moment.

Sorry.

Even in this NHL, a 4-0 lead at home is lockdown safe. So we started thinking about how this game is merely the appetizer for Monday's return engagement with the Winnipeg Jets.

Even though the Stars' record at home is excellent -- 5-1 and they've allowed 10 goals in total -- they have not been overly taxed in terms of their home opponents. Again, you play the schedule they give you. But Winnipeg represents something a notch (or 10) above teams like Buffalo, Carolina and Arizona -- the three previous home opponents to visit American Airlines Center.

And coming so soon after being humbled 5-2 by Winnipeg, a game in which Dallas gave up three first-period goals, including two on the power play, well, the challenge of carrying over the positives of Saturday into Monday become more pronounced.

So, even if no one else was, we were already looking forward to great anticipation Monday's rematch with a Jets team, now 6-1-3 in their last 10 games.

Video: BUF@DAL: Lehtonen fights through screen for nice save

 

4. Kari earns two wins in a row

Interesting comments from Hitchcock prior to the game about possibly getting backup netminder Kari Lehtonen more starts, if he was able to continue the strong play that netted him his first win of the season in Calgary last Friday.

That game was full of urgency, both in terms of the actual play on the ice -- as the Stars had to battle back to win 2-1 -- and in terms of the big picture, given that the Stars had lost two in a row.

The Stars took the urgency out of this one early one, but let's give Lehtonen credit for blocking 27 of 28 Buffalo shots to earn his second straight victory.

He got surprised by Ryan O'Reilly's quick shot in the midway through the second period after Jamie Benn lost track of O'Reilly following a defensive zone draw. And we can't recall any saves that made us go, 'Oh, my'.

But that's not the measure of Lehtonen's performance.

If we can steal a few words from Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice, who described his star netminder Connor Hellebuyck as making quiet saves or saves that quiet a game, that seemed to describe Lehtonen's performance Saturday.

Sure, there was no urgency, but that's because Lehtonen didn't create any or allow any to be created.

"You need to treat it more like a practice when it gets to four or five goals," Lehtonen said of the comfortable lead. "Just go shot after shot and don't think too much. You know they are going to have some good chances, so you just need to stay in there and stay calm, and if they score one, so what. Just keep going."

Now, we'd still go back to Ben Bishop Monday night. Not that anyone has asked our opinion on who should start. Yet.

But Lehtonen is making a case to be seen and heard from more often.

"I said this in training camp: I have two starting goalies. So, I ought to use them," Hitchcock said. "We have a lot of money tied up in that and we ought to use it. It's a strength of the organization and we ought to use it. I don't know if he is going to play Monday, but is he going to play more? Yes."

Video: BUF@DAL: Roussel nets redirection from the slot

 

5. Hello, depth

We already know Hitchcock gives not a whit about his depth scoring -- or lack thereof -- at least not until his big guns go silent.

And the big line of Seguin, Benn and Alexander Radulov was fine producing a power-play goal with Seguin adding a secondary assist on the Stars' fifth goal.

But whether Hitchcock really cares or not, it seems vitally important that Elie scored his first of the season. And that Smith was dynamic. And that dynamic play helped produce two goals, Roussel scored his first of the season and Faksa scored his first in seven games before leaving the game with what looked like a leg injury that will be updated Sunday. Stephen Johns, just nicely back from a concussion, even got in on the action, pounding home his second of the season.

"That was huge," Lehtonen said. "The first 5 minutes, we were a little behind, and they were dictating the game. But we then got some scoring from guys who haven't done it too much, so that was huge. That got the ball rolling and we went from there."

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.

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