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What to watch for as Stars hit road to face Avalanche

The preseason debut of Kari Lehtonen and a chance for youngsters to shine top Thursday night's storylines

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars hit the road for their second of six preseason tilts heading to Denver for a Thursday night affair with the Colorado Avalanche, the worst team in the NHL last season.

Here's a look at how things shape up.

Video: Dowling impresses in prospects scrimmage

 

1) Youngsters look to shine against Avs' seasoned pros

The Stars iced a relatively star-laden lineup for their first preseason game, a 5-3 come-from-behind win over St. Louis on Tuesday. Head coach Ken Hitchcock suggested Thursday's lineup will be more "hard-working," which means guys like Jason Spezza -- who will play in his first preseason game Saturday in St. Louis -- Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, Ben Bishop and Marc Methot, among others, will have their feet up at home in Dallas for this one.

Fair enough.

With the Avs set to ice a roster that includes established NHLers Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Semyon Varlamov, this will be a good test for the Stars players who will make the trip west.

"This is the reward game," Hitchcock said Thursday before the team left for Denver.

Justin Dowling, Dillon Heatherington, and Landon Bow will all be in the lineup Thursday. "They've all had great camps," Hitchcock said.

Look for Denis Gurianov, Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz, guys who will be knocking at the door from the American Hockey League this season, to get lots of ice time possibly on special teams (see below).

 

2) Kari Lehtonen set for first taste of game action

Among the regulars who will get their first taste of preseason action will be netminder Kari Lehtonen. Look for Lehtonen to play the first two periods against the Avs, with Bow getting action in the third period based on his strong camp.

Hitchcock used the same pattern Tuesday with Ben Bishop playing the first two periods before giving way to Mike McKenna, who was excellent. Also in Denver, look for Greg Pateryn and Patrik Nemeth to continue to make cases for themselves to be on the everyday lineup along the Dallas blue line when the season starts on Oct. 6. Pateryn, in particular, has been impressive.

"Pateryn's been sturdy and steady," Hitchcock said. "He's had a hell of a camp. He's as competitive as heck."

Pateryn admits it's a natural reaction to assess where you think you are in terms of the competition for jobs.

"I think that part of it is just human but I think I've done a good job of trying not to pay attention to any of that," the 27-year-old said.

"Just kind of worry about myself right now," he added. "It's funny how everything always has a way of working itself out."

Speaking of the blue line Julius Honka will play in his second straight game and will be looking to re-establish his spot in the top six after an up-and-down night on Tuesday.

 

3) Adjusting to new standards -- and whistles

The dominant storyline throughout the league early in the exhibition schedule has been the league-mandated crackdown on slashing infractions and faceoff violations.

Among the 15 minor penalties (and two double-minors) called in Tuesday's game, none were for players who misbehaved at the faceoff dot. We'll see if that trend continues Thursday.

As for slashing, there were three slashing minors called -- two to the Stars, and fair to say most would not have been called last season.

The Stars did a nice job in killing nine of 11 power play opportunities on Tuesday, and one of the man-advantage goals by the Blues was scored on a 5-on-3. Still, Hitchcock and his players understand that adjusting to the new standards is part of the preseason learning curve. So even for guys playing in their first preseason games on Thursday, adjusting to the standards will be part of the evaluation process for the coaching staff -- as will strong special teams play.

 

4) R.J. Umberger's chance to show out

Thursday will also mark the preseason debut of veteran NHLer R.J. Umberger. This isn't make-or-break for Umberger, 35, who is in camp on a tryout, as Hitchcock said he'll take a look at Umberger in a couple of preseason games. That said, it was a longshot to begin with for Umberger, given the depth of forward talent in the Dallas lineup and combined with the fact he didn't play at all last season, and missed much of the 2015-16 season with injury in Columbus.

This kind of game, which figures to be a grinding affair from the Dallas side of the ledger, looms large though for Umberger, who must assert himself as a diligent forechecker and veteran presence on the bench.

"This starts the process for him," Hitchcock said. "He's going to get a number of games before we make the decision. This is a good start for him really good."

Umberger looks to play on what would be considered the team's top forward unit Thursday with Radek Faksa and Curtis McKenzie.

Video: Preseason important for preparation

 

5) Roster to begin taking shape by Friday

By Friday, the Stars will begin to take definite shape vis-a-vis the opening night roster, as Hitchcock will accelerate the process by running two groups for practice, one of which will be a 30-man group from which the final roster will be chosen.

The smaller group of roughly 20 will skate together but barring injury that smaller group will be made up of players who will play elsewhere when the season starts.

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

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