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Getting back into the swing of things

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

On day four of Dallas Stars training camp, the focus started to move away from getting players up to speed with the club’s systems, although that is still going on a bit, and allowing veterans to shake off the rust and get their timing back.

With the exhibition season starting Tuesday in St. Louis, the attention for management and the players is quickly heading towards being ready for game action.

Virtually all of the 48 players in camp, which got underway Friday at the Stars’ practice facility at Frisco’s Dr Pepper StarCenter, will compete Tuesday because there are actually two games that night.

Besides the primary matchup between the Stars and Blues, a game that will feature a fairly large contingent of NHL-experienced players from each side, there is also a ‘Prospects Game’ prior to the main event at the ScottTrade Center. 

The first game will consist of players ticketed for the AHL or junior-age guys to give them a taste of game action against other players in the same skill and experience bracket.

“Today, we’re just probably more tactical, (going over) a few tactical things to get ready for tomorrow,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said of the team’s objective on Monday. “Just about every player, other than five or six, will play in the games tomorrow, so just touch on a last few things of how we want to play and how we want to play together, a little bit of special teams stuff, and just to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

Tippett is glad that the Stars and Blues agreed to add the extra junior varsity contest, as they also did last season at the American Airlines Center, because it enables them to evaluate some players in game situations who might not otherwise have skated in an NHL pre-season game. 

“You get a good way to expose everybody to a game, because a lot of those kids wouldn’t get a game,” Tippett said. “So it’s a game, it’s a great experience, especially since we’re traveling - they jump on the plane, they do exactly what an NHL team does, the very same thing. It’s a very good experience for a lot of them.”

The prospect game will be the last opportunity for most of the junior-age players to make an impression, since most of them will be returned to their teams on Wednesday.

“There will be some guys moving out after (Tuesday),” Tippett revealed. “Some junior guys got to get back, their teams are getting up and going, so they’ll get back. Depending on injury-wise, we’ll be somewhere around the 30ish mark by the weekend, by the time we leave for Chicago.”

As for the official game against the Blues, there will be plenty of Stars hopefuls trying to make their mark, to make sure they’re still here by then and beyond.

One player looking to stand out is goaltender Tobias Stephan, who is slated to start. Considered the likely backup to starter Marty Turco this season, the 24-year-old Stephan was the top goalie at AHL Iowa last season, going 27-25-2 with six shutouts while registering a 2.65 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. 

Now, after two seasons in Iowa, both he and the organization feel he is ready to move up the ladder now.

“This is the next step for him, so we’ll see where he gets,” Tippett said. “He’s going to get lots of time in exhibition games and it’s up to him to play well.”

“I think I’ve done everything to be ready now and I think I’ll be ready in camp,” said Stephan, the Stars’ second round selection (34th overall) in the 2002 Entry Draft. “Of course, there’s pressure, but it’s been all through my career, so I know how to handle it. I’m really looking forward to camp and to the whole season.”

While he has just one game of NHL experience under his belt, Stephan was outstanding in that one contest, making 38 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss to Chicago last Oct. 13. He maintained a 1-0 lead until the Blackhawks got the equalizer on a 6-on-3 advantage with 1.5 seconds remaining in the third period. 

“We had the one game last year where he jumped in and stopped (38) shots,” Tippett recalled. “Hopefully, it’s not like that every night for him, but we’ll see how it goes for him. It just re-affirms that you think he can do the job.  But one game doesn’t make a career, either, but it’s building that process of having the confidence to know he can get in and do the job.”

“I think I’m ready and I want to show everybody that I’m able to do the job here,” Stephan added.

Another guy on the bubble trying to impress the NHL coaching staff is left winger Chris Conner. A year ago, Conner had an outstanding camp and led the club (and finished third in the entire NHL) in pre-season scoring with four goals and nine points, but still didn’t make the roster. 

The speedy 5-foot-8, 180-pound native of Westland, Michigan did suit up for 22 regular season contests in Dallas, scoring three goals and five points while averaging 12 minutes of ice time per game. He also skated in one playoff game, but Conner spent most of the year in Iowa, collecting 13 goals and 39 points in 55 outings. Now he’s determined to show he deserves to stay here.

“I just got to go play my game, be solid, just go out there and work hard and bring whatever I can to the table and make the team,” said Conner, 24, who will be skating in the primary contest Tuesday. “I feel good. I’m just going out there and playing, that’s all I can do. I can’t worry about the numbers or anything like that, I just go play hard.”

The rest of the players are also eager to get back into game situations and continue preparing for the regular season opener on Oct. 10. 

“We got our feet wet a couple of days ago and we’ve been having a couple days of good practice here,” defenseman Mark Fistric noted. “I think the exhibition games are going to be good, to get back into the swing of things. I’m ready for the season to get started.”
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