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Burnside: Five takeaways from Stars' season-opening loss to Vegas

On a night of hockey history, Dallas winds up on the wrong end in a tough 2-1 defeat

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

And so a moment in history as the expansion Vegas Golden Knights came from behind to nip the Dallas Stars 2-1 in their first-ever game to open the 2017-18 season.

Not exactly the history that anyone connected with the Stars had in mind.

Here's a look at how things transpired at American Airlines Center on Friday night, and what they mean. Or might mean.

Video: Postgame: DAL vs VGK Hitchcock

 

1. Let's be honest

The Vegas Golden Knights are not a particularly talented team. It's pretty much the rule with expansion teams. Their best offensive player, James Neal, was cleared to play just before Friday's game and ended up scoring both goals for the Golden Knights in the third period.

And this is not to take anything away from Neal, or anyone else, but it remains more than a bit mindboggling that a Stars team that was exponentially better at almost every aspect of the game except actually scoring - and winning as it turns out - found a way not to collect two points on the opening night of a season that has many predicting great things for this team.

The Stars outshot the Golden Knights 46-30. They directed 75 shots at the Vegas goal that were either stopped, blocked or missed the net entirely -- and only one of those managed to beat veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, who was terrific in goal.

Fleury got to every puck except a Tyler Seguin redirect of a Devin Shore pass on a second-period power play, but the 'ran into a hot goaltender' rationale is a convenient crutch that belies some crucial breakdowns at crucial times.

"We didn't extend the lead after the second period with all the scoring chances," Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We left the game out there."

In fact Hitchcock, who looked for a while like he was going to move into a tie for third all-time in wins among coaches with Al Arbour, felt his team was distracted.

Game 1 of the regular season and apparently his squad was put off by a hot goaltender, took too many penalties and basically didn't stay focused long enough to be at team that at the end of the day will likely be among the NHL's poorest this season.

"We have to find a way to not be distracted. That's the biggest challenge for us right now," Hitchcock said. "And keep our focus razor sharp for 60 minutes."

Video: VGK@DAL: Radulov lays a big hit on Eakin 

 

2. Beg to differ

Actually, the more immediate major challenge for the suddenly 0-1 Stars is that, in 24 hours, they're going to be in St. Louis for their first divisional game of the season, and could be looking at 0-2 before their season is a weekend old.

Never mind the emotion of Hitchcock returning for his first regular season game against the team that fired him last Feb. 1. The narrative has shifted pretty quickly. The Blues knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on the road to start the season, and were at home resting Friday watching the Stars fail to capitalize on what should have been a gift two points at home to open the season.

Now, the Stars face an early test with, well, let's ask Seguin how much is riding on Saturday's game.

"A lot," the Stars top center said. "A good opportunity for our first bit of a bounce back game. We know what it's like going to St. Louis. They're going to be a much more competitive team. More size. It's a tough building to play in so we're going to have to simplify it even more and play a full 60 minutes tomorrow night."

Hitchcock has already noted how difficult it is to play back-to-back early to start the season, and the Penguins went from playing at home on opening night to playing in Chicago the next night, where they lost 10-1. Just saying.

Video: VGK@DAL: Bishop shuts the door on Leipsic's wrister

 

3. Getting lots of PK practice

One interesting stat coming out of Friday's loss is that Antoine Roussel is on pace for 492 penalty minutes this season after taking three straight minor penalties in the first period, including one for playing the puck while still inside the penalty box while serving his second minor.

Not a good night for the emotional Roussel, but his misdeeds did not cost the Stars in a way that such misdeeds almost always cost them last season. Instead, the team killed off all three of the Roussel minors and four others.

As Hitchcock noted Friday morning, the power play is going to be a work in progress (it finished the evening 1-for-4) but if you can kill penalties, you can win games. In theory, you can at least. But for a team that was downright miserable in finishing dead last in penalty killing efficiency last season, Friday stands as an important first test, even if the final outcome didn't reflect the traditional pass/fail marker for traditional tests.

In killing all seven power play opportunities (the Golden Knights did score on a delayed penalty which doesn't count on the special teams ledger), the Stars got to pucks and blocked shots -- 20 throughout the game. And sometimes, it's the timing of the kills not just the kills. Like late in the second period, moments after the Stars had taken a 1-0 lead, a Tyler Pitlick turnover led to a Dan Hamhuis slashing penalty.

If you have bad penalty-killing karma, or lack mental stamina, these are the moments that usually bite you. It didn't, which is something.

On the other hand, if you're planning on giving seven man-advantage chances to a team with a little more finish and polish than an expansion team playing its first game, the chances are you are going to get bitten. And hard.

Video: VKG@DAL: Seguin nets redirect for power-play goal

 

4. Big line, big chances, little to show

Hitchcock was pretty diplomatic when asked before the season opener about the team's top line of Seguin, Benn and newcomer Radulov, saying they'd been good without the puck.

Friday, after a pedestrian first period, the trio was exhilarating to watch even if they ended up with little to show for that dynamic play on the score sheet.

The trio accounted for 23 shot attempts on the night including at least half a dozen Grade-A scoring chances. Were it not for Fleury, we'd be talking about multiple point nights for all three. But at the end of the day, these are the team's most skilled players whose job isn't just to create chances, but to finish them.

"Yeah, but chances not winning the games you know," Radulov acknowledged. "Maybe something we try too much. We've got to work harder and it's a tough loss especially now when you got chance to bury them."

Seguin, who had a game-high 10 shots on goals, admitted there were too many nights last season when the team, which missed the playoffs after dropping 30 points in the standings over 2015-16, lamented having lots of chances and little to show for it.

Still, he said, he isn't discouraged.  

"To be honest though I love our line," said Seguin who noted that the trio has only played together now three times in game situations.

Video: VGK@DAL: Bishop leaves game after shot to mask

 

5. Encouraging sign: Ben is okay

Strange turn of events just four minutes into the third period when starting netminder Ben Bishop took a hard Reilly Smith shot to the face mask. He suffered a cut and left the game. As he headed toward the bench fans below the press box began yelling, "Shake it off. We need you."

Among other encouragement: Bishop had turned aside all 19 Vegas shots in his first regular season start since signing a six-year deal with Dallas in the offseason.

Bishop returned to the bench, and at one point he and backup Kari Lehtonen spoke, but Hitchcock said doctors said that Bishop wasn't cleared to return to action. But let's be clear that the fact that Lehtonen allowed the two Vegas goals while facing 11 shots doesn't suggest this is a goaltending issue. In fact, Lehtonen made several key saves as the Stars seemed to sag as the third period went along.

As is usually the case with the unflappable Finn, Lehtonen said coming in cold wasn't an issue.

"Just try to warm up a little bit and just get things going," he said. "It was good they got a couple of shots there and kind of got going so that was no issue. It usually takes a couple of shots to kind of get into it and then I was there."

It is unclear who will start Saturday, as Hitchcock had planned to use Lehtonen in Game 2 prior to Bishop's injury. The coach did say that Bishop is available for play Saturday.

Regardless, Lehtonen acknowledged the contest looms large.

"Well it's big," he said. "When you have a chance to put a team away you like to do that. And definitely we created some great stuff but you know there's these nights it's just not going in. like it normally does. That was tough for us. But we kept going and going and just fell short at the end."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott Burnside on Twitter @OvertimeScottB and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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