By Patrick Hayslip
Who needs 23-year-old Jamie Benn when you have the two 40-year-old veterans in Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney. New to the Stars in their attempt to retool a team that has missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, Jagr and Whitney combined for six points in the Stars 4-3 victory over Pacific Division rival Phoenix Coyotes.
With the score tied at 3-3, Jagr earned his fourth point on the night as he recovered a rebound off a Derek Roy shot and ripped a no-look backhand pass to Loui Eriksson, who buried it into the gaping net for the tie-breaking goal.
Kari Lehtonen made 37 saves on the night as the Stars open the season at home with a victory. Despite being out-shot 40-26, the Stars showed some offensive pop that looked to be missing in last year’s team.
Jagr was a benefactor of a rare Coyotes turnover as Loui Eriksson found him busting in on goal, where he finished low blocker side on former Stars goalie Mike Smith. Jagr may be a bit old and slow in critics, but his 666th career goal that gave the Stars a 1-0 lead after the first period shows he still knows how to finish. Jagr scored 19 goals and 54 points in 73 games for the Philadelphia Flyers last season. Jagr played in the KHL during the lockout so he looks to be in midseason form.
The Stars showed they were ready to open the season, holding the Coyotes scoreless in the first period as Lehtonen, who will fill this role frequently for the Stars, was the backbone of the defense with 10 saves in the first. Lehtonen possesses a huge frame at 6’ 4”, 217 pounds with a keen puck-tracking ability (especially through traffic) that saw him rank eighth in the NHL with a .922 save percentage and the tenth best goals against average of 2.33.
Stars got caught taking too many penalties in the second period that allowed the Coyotes to tie it at 1-1. Two Stars overpursued on the left boards which gave Phoenix a two-on-one in front of Lehtonen, which they buried when Radim Vrbata found Lauri Korpikoski for the easy goal.
Martin Hanzal provided a screen on Lehtonen and deflected a Vrbata shot for the go-ahead 2-1 goal.
The Stars penalty kill will most certainly be a focus for the team this year as will the power play. With so many moving parts, it might take a few games for them to settle on line decisions.
The Stars were able to absorb the Coyotes’ momentum as they got their own power-play opportunity late in the second. They struggled in their own zone early, but eventually got the Coyotes flat footed. Jagr was able to curtail a loose puck in the slot and rip a shot left side for his second goal of the game and send the Stars into the third period tied at 2-2.
Opening the third period on the power play, Ray Whitney drove the net and eventually beat Mike Smith 5-hole off a right-boards pass from Jagr to give the Stars the 3-2 lead.
Both Jagr and Whitney showed they can still play at their age as they will most certainly improve the Stars’ dead-last ranked power play.
Vrbata scored his third point of the game as he picked off Jordie Benn at the Stars’ blue line and beat Lehtonen 5-hole to tie the game at 3-3.
As far as the line combinations go, the Stars designated captain Brenden Morrow to the third line along with Eric Nystrom and former Coyote Vernon Fiddler. Reilly Smith, Ryan Garbutt and Cody Eakin, who the Stars got in return from Washington for Mike Ribeiro rounded out the Stars’ fourth line.
Derek Roy filled in for Jamie Benn as the top center with Whitney on his left and Jagr on his right as the Stars’ top line. Tom Wandell was flanked by Loui Eriksson and Michael Ryder as the Stars’ second line.
On defense, the Stars gave their open defensive spots to Brenden Dillon, who looked might impressive in just his second NHL game, and Jordie Benn.
Up next for the Stars is the NHL’s version of the dream team as the Stars travel to Minnesota to face Zach Parise and Ryan Suter tomorrow.