ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - The Dallas Stars completed their preseason schedule with a desultory 5-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Saturday. The most crucial part of that statement is 'completed' as in no one will remember this game or the fact the Stars finished 3-3 in six preseason games a day from now. Maybe not even an hour from now.
That's because all focus is now on Friday night's home opener against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. As it should be.
But before we get there here's a look at the team's preseason finale in the State of Hockey.
From a tactical standpoint, perhaps the most important part of this game was the return to action of center Martin Hanzal who had been held out of all earlier preseason contests as he recuperated from an ankle injury sustained in pre-training camp workouts. As expected, Hanzal had to adjust to his first game speed of camp but showed on a number of occasions why he's considered one of the premier defensive centers in the game, breaking up plays in the defensive zone before they became scoring chances. He was on the ice, however, for an Eric Staal goal 35 seconds into the third period after his line lost control of the puck at the Wild blue line. "Well, I felt better before," Hanzal said after logging 16:44 in ice time and going minus-2. "It's been a long time, I haven't played games so I still struggling but it's a process." Head coach Ken Hitchcock has big plans for the big center and whomever lines up on his wings and those plans have been hard to put into place because of Hanzal's injury. Devin Shore, playing on the right side, and Antoine Roussel on the left, played with Hanzal Saturday. The three didn't generate much in the way of offensive chances but Hitchcock was nonplussed. "He's going to help us a lot," Hitchcock said of Hanzal who was signed as a free agent in the offseason. "He's exactly what we need. If we're going to compete in the Central Division we're going to need more players with his disposition. So very happy with him."
Kids alright but…
This was the most NHL-ready of lineups that the Stars faced thus far as the Minnesota Wild iced what will be their opening night roster with the exception of veteran Zach Parise, who's still battling back issues. Hitchcock left his big line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov along with defenseman John Klingberg at home, giving his kids one more look before final rosters have to be submitted Tuesday. The outcome reflects that. Eric Staal with two, Charlie Coyle and Mikko Koivu finished off nice passing plays for Wild goals and youngsters like Remi Elie, who fanned on a grand setup from Jason Spezza in the first period, couldn't find the finish. Brett Ritchie, who's likely to start the season playing with Spezza and Mattias Janmark, is going to be counted on to produce even more offense than he did a year ago when he scored 16 times. He had a great chance on a Dallas power play, but couldn't close the deal although he did poke home a loose puck for the Stars' lone score in the third. Easy to forget or discouraging? "A little bit of both," Ritchie said. "Obviously it's just a preseason game and you're not so much worried about the score you're more worried about your habits. You want to try and get better each game and throughout each game you want to stay solid and play within your system. I thought at times tonight we did that and then I thought at other times we were a little loose a little disconnected."
What remains unclear as we head into final roster cuts (NHL lineups must be submitted by Tuesday afternoon) is whether the Dallas Stars will keep eight defensemen to start the season. GM Jim Nill indicated there was a good possibility that would be the case. If so, the question then becomes what to do with young Julius Honka. Does he stay and learn the craft even if he doesn't play regularly as a 7th or 8th defenseman or does he go back to the American Hockey League and play big, important minutes every night with the Texas Stars? Not sure what the right answer is, but we saw Honka struggle throughout Saturday's contest. In the second period he strayed too close to the boards in the neutral zone opening up a seam down the middle and then didn't skate full out to close the distance on Coyle driving the net resulting in the second Minnesota goal. Early in the third period a Honka pass picked off in the neutral zone turned into a 2-on-1 for the Wild. Hey, it's preseason, kids are going to make mistakes, it's part of the deal. But fair to say there's more work to be done before Honka, just 21, fulfills his big promise. The question still remains whether that work gets done in Dallas or on the farm.
Playing with urgency
One theme Hitchcock has returned to a number of times in recent days is how pleased he is at how the group has embraced the systems put in place by Hitchcock and his staff, how important it is to win the small battles, to gain territory and generate offense from that hard work. The finish may not have been there Saturday, but saw strong play again from youngsters Gemel Smith and Jason Dickinson in creating chances from that hard work. And Radek Faksa might have had his best game, at least defensively, of the preseason several times breaking up dangerous plays. Faksa looks to start the season as the team's fourth line center playing with Tyler Pitlick although if Hitchcock's system works according to plan the team's forward units will all present problems for opposing teams.
Now the work begins
The real lesson learned Saturday is that as hard as that Stars lineup worked it wasn't a match for a veteran, hungry Wild team that looks now to be ready for the start of the season. The Stars? That work continues Sunday and on through the week. "I thought until the last 10 minutes we were competing at a good level but they really took over in the last half of the third period," Hitchcock said as the Wild scored three times in the final frame. "They were a veteran laden hockey club they know how to play the right way. I think they taught us a lot of lessons today. Lessons that we can use starting tomorrow."
"I thought their experience and their competitiveness really showed a lot today," Hitchcock added. "We had some guys that were up to speed and we had some other guys that were quite a bit behind."
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB.