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Several Stars looking forward to extending season at upcoming World Championships

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars
Their season may have ended a bit prematurely when the Dallas Stars missed the playoffs, but several Stars, including some of the club’s most important contributors, are not done playing.

That’s because at least six Stars are heading overseas to represent their countries at the annual World Championships taking place in Sweden and Finland from May 4-20.

Both Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson are scheduled to represent their countries at the 2012 IIHF World Championships in Sweden and Finland in May.
Essentially, the tournament features the best players on the planet that are not still playing in the NHL playoffs, so continuing their season while playing with and against elite-level competition can only be seen as a positive for the guys selected to play.

Among the key Stars participating are top netminder, and consensus team MVP, Kari Lehtonen (Finland), leading scorer Loui Eriksson (Sweden), third-year center Jamie Benn (Canada), top offensive defenseman Alex Goligoski (USA), promising rookie blueliner Philip Larsen (Denmark) and rookie backup goalie Richard Bachman (USA).

With so many different nations represented, the odds are pretty good that someone on the Stars will return home with a medal to display proudly.

Besides being able to continue a season that ended too soon, skating in such a high-stakes tournament replicates playoff-style pressure, especially when the quarterfinals begin, with single-elimination games leading up to the gold medal contest. Being relied upon in such clutch situations will only enhance the players’ development.

“I do think it’s important, and I think they’re good experiences for them (to play in playoff-type situations),” Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “In the case of some of these guys, they want to make a good impression and get some international experience, with the Olympics right around the corner again, and I think that’s all part of it. In the case of Kari, I think it’s important that he plays under that microscope and backstops his country, I think it will be good for him.”

“Whenever you get a chance to see what it feels like to playing in May, it’s a good experience,” noted Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “Plus, they’re playing with some elite players over there. That’s a real good experience for our guys, especially Bachs and Lehts and Bennie, who has a chance to maybe play with Getzlaf and Perry and maybe Tavares, guys of his caliber, so they make each other better. I think it’s a good experience.”

Defenseman Trevor Daley was also invited to play for Team Canada, but declined because his wife is due to give birth in early June.

As for the guys who are going, they are excited to be able to pull on their national team’s jersey and to get a chance to perform against top-notch competition on a large international stage.

“It’ll be a good experience for a young guy like me and to be surrounded by some pretty good players,” said the 22-year-old Benn, who posted career-highs this past season with 26 goals, 37 assists and 63 points, as well as a +15 plus/minus rating, in 71 games. “I guess that’s next up for me and I’m looking forward to it.”

“It’s always fun to go and play there, I played last year, too,” said Eriksson, whose 71 points (on 26 goals and 45 assists) topped all Dallas players in 2011-12. “And this year it’s in Sweden and Finland, so it’s going to be fun to go home and play for your home country. And to play some more games, too. It’s always fun.”

That desire to keep playing in a playoff-like atmosphere certainly was a factor in convincing players to accept the invitation to participate.

“I want to get used to playing in May and extending the season, and that’s what you need to do ultimately when you play in the playoffs and go deep there,” noted Lehtonen, 28, who has played in just two career post-season contests over the course of his nine-year NHL career. “So I think that will be great for me to make the summer a little shorter and just keep playing.”

“It’s somewhat of a sour taste in my mouth and I just wanted to keep playing,” added the 26-year-old Goligoski, a native of Grand Rapids, Minn., who helped Pittsburgh win the 2009 Stanley Cup before his trade to Dallas on Feb. 21, 2011. “It’s an honor to play for your country, obviously, and I’m really looking forward to just continuing the season, I guess, the only way I can - a lot of important games in a short time, against a lot of really good hockey players. It’s my first time doing it and I’m really excited about it.”

The experience will also be particularly special for Bachman, who started this season at AHL Texas and probably never figured he could finish off a strong NHL rookie campaign by playing for Team USA.

“It all happened very quick when you really look at everything, from the end of November to now, everything that happened, but it’s been a fun ride and I’m just trying to enjoy every chance I can,” said the 24-year-old Bachman, a native of Salt Lake City who posted an 8-5-1 record with a 2.77 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage in 18 appearances following his Nov. 27 recall. “We’re all just trying to get better and hopefully have more opportunities to do this in the future. I think it’s a great opportunity for me, it gives me a chance to go play some more hockey. I think it’ll be a lot of fun getting to go over to Europe, I’ve never been over there, so I’m looking forward to the experience.”

Nieuwendyk seemed most eager to see how Lehtonen would perform as the backbone of defending gold medalist Finland, while playing in the same arena that served as his home rink when he led Jokerit Helsinki to the 2002 Finnish Elite League championship.

“I think it’s important for Kari Lehtonen to play those types of games,” Nieuwendyk said. “It is in Helsinki, so I’m in favor of that. Kari is a dominant goaltender and playing in the World Championships gives him another feather in his cap to build on.”

“I’ve done it a few times and you have to really try to find your best mode,” noted Lehtonen, who already owns a silver medal from the 2007 Worlds, when he also earned Best Goalkeeper honors. “And it’s so short, you have to be on your game totally, because there’s going to be a couple of other goalies that will be for sure, so it’s the same thing probably as a playoff situation, because it’s always goalie battles and you try to be the better one. I think that’ll be good for me to get that experience again. I don’t think that (playing in Helsinki) hurts, to go back after 10 years since I left, and to go back to the same building, I think that will be pretty cool.”

In addition to the thrill of skating for their national teams, another source of excitement for the players is the possibility of facing off against their Stars teammates.

“It’ll be a little different, I know all the little spots to shoot on Kari, so I’ll be okay,” Goligoski said with a smile.

Eriksson in particular was hoping to get a chance to shoot against Lehtonen, particularly because the Finns defeated Sweden for the 2011 gold medal, leaving Eriksson to settle for silver.

“We might have some bets,” said the 26-year-old Eriksson, who also has a bronze medal from the 2009 World Championships in his trophy case. “It would definitely be a big game to play them there. They beat us in the Final last year, so we got some revenge to hand out. It’ll be fun if we get a chance to play against each other.”

“I know all his weak spots,” Benn joked about going up against Lehtonen. “It’ll be fun to play a couple of teammates over there. It’s better than sitting around for a couple of months. I’m excited to go over there, it’ll be a good experience and to get some international play is always a good thing.”

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