Virginia, Minn., population 7,000, has a few more Stars fans these days. That’s the hometown of rookie defenseman Matt Niskanen, who made a positive impression in his American Airlines Center debut for the Stars on Friday night.
Niskanen was one of the surprises of training camp when he survived the final cut and earned a slot in the opening-night lineup.
The 20-year-old justified that faith in the 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins when he earned two assists for his first NHL points.
“In camp, I just wanted to have a good showing and set myself up for a call-up later this year,” Niskanen said. “But a couple injuries gave me a window of opportunity and I happened to have a good camp. Now I'm trying to take full advantage.”
Niskanen is by far the youngest member of the Stars’ defensive corps. The 6-0, 194-pounder was the Stars’ first-round pick in the 2005 draft and after two good seasons on the blue line for Minnesota-Duluth, Niskanen signed a three-year contract with the Stars on March 19.
Niskanen is supposed to be holding a place in the top six defensemen until Niklas Grossman is healthy, but Niskanen looked ready for prime time against the Bruins.
He had 12 minutes and 47 seconds of ice time and finished a plus-two with two hits and two blocked shots. Niskanen doesn’t look overwhelmed in the midst of a defensive corps dominated by veterans.
“He was very good again,” coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s got some poise. He has some hiccups here and there that any young defenseman is going to have, but he’s a pretty solid player out there right now.”
Niskanen had only 25 games of pro experience last season for the Iowa Stars, showing his mettle with seven points in 12 playoff games. He raised his status in the organization by several notches with a productive camp, and then turned in a strong NHL debut in Wednesday’s opening-night loss at Colorado.
Paired with veteran Philippe Boucher, Niskanen didn’t seem nervous in his first regular-season game in front of the home crowd.
“He looks like a veteran out there,” Boucher said. “He's making all the good plays, keeping it simple. I'm sure he had a few nerves. First couple of games in the NHL, you'd better be excited, but he handled it very well.”
Niskanen said skating with Boucher has helped his development.
“It's a great situation,” Niskanen said. “He's a great player, so verbal on the ice, and really makes me feel comfortable. He's a great partner.''
Among the hot topics of training camp was the importance of getting scoring from sources other than mainstays like Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Brenden Morrow
On Friday night, Niskanen heeded the call along with Joel Lundqvist and Niklas Hagman, who notched Dallas’ first two goals off Niskanen assists.
Lundqvist’s one-timer from the inner edge of the right circle gave Dallas the lead at 15:19 of the opening period. The goal was set up by Niskanen’s pass from the point.
“The play he made to Lundqvist was just a real good heads-up play,” Tippett said. “He finds the open guy. That’s the poise he has with the puck. That’s just instinct of playing. That’s why he’s a good player.”
Niskanen said he needed a little luck in getting the puck to Lundqvist
“The puck came hard to me along the wall and I managed to keep possession with my foot,’’ Niskanen said. “I saw Lundie going to the net and threw it at him. It was kind of a bad pass, bouncing all over the place, but he got a stick on it. Sometimes they're not always pretty. A lot of people say you make your own luck but those guys deserved to score on that shift.”
On the second goal, Hagman got behind the defense, skated through the crease and backhanded a shot past ex-Star goaltender Manny Fernandez to make it 2-0. Jussi Jokinen and Niskanen were credited with assists.
Niskanen admitted to a few nerves, but overall, he’s been cool, calm and collected in a high-pressure situation.
“I was more nervous Wednesday night for the first one and I had a few nerves at the start tonight, but I settled down as the game went on,” he said. “I’m trying to improve slowly, trying to get better.”