DALLAS — Lindy Ruff even mentioned it during his introductory press conference back in June, that during his decade-plus as the Buffalo Sabres’ head coach, one of his biggest strengths had been adaptability.
And after the Dallas Stars failed to give their new coach a win in his debut on Thursday night against the Florida Panthers, a game they led 2-1 in the third period only to concede three unanswered to the Panthers and fall 4-2 at American Airlines Center, Ruff talked about how there were some things that needed to be cleaned up if they were to get that first win on Saturday against the Washington Capitals at the AAC.
For one, the Stars needed to be much cleaner defensively, which for the veteran coach entailed taking better care of the puck and being quicker to free pucks in either the neutral zone or the Dallas zone to snuff out any potential chances.
The Dallas penalty kill also had to be on point with the Caps coming to town, who prior to Saturday boasted a unit that was 5-of-9 with the man advantage through their first two games of the season. The Stars accomplished that goal, limiting Washington to just three power plays although Alex Ovechkin did convert on their first opportunity, scoring from a near-impossible angle early in the game, but other than that the Dallas PK was more than up to the challenge.
And their final kill of the night was the biggest. It came when with just 35.6 seconds left, Stars center Tyler Seguin, who picked up his first assist with Dallas on Erik Cole’s game-tying goal later in the first period, inadvertently flipped the puck over the boards to earn a delay of game penalty to put the Caps on the power play once more.
The Stars snuffed out the first half minute of the Caps’ PP and also hung tough during a final offensive flurry by the visitors who were attempting to force the extra frame. Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen also came up with a big save at the final horn, denying Washington’s Mikhail Grabovski to preserve the win.
Following the win, Ruff was very matter of fact in what he felt led to the win over the Capitals.
“We had guys who just showed up nervous for Game 1,” Ruff said. “Tonight we were able to battle down low. Guys hunkered down.”
Another big reason why the Stars were able to hold their 2-1 lead for the entire third period and not have a repeat performance of Thursday’s final-period collapse was that they were able to limit Washington’s shots, a point of emphasis for the veteran coach after Florida finished Thursday’s game with 39 shots, an unacceptable total to say the least in Ruff’s eyes.
“We really didn’t sit on [the puck],” Ruff said. “We had some great zone time and didn’t do anything foolish that would lose the game.”
Saturday’s bounce back performance was a good sign from this group. And not only was it good to get Ruff his first win, but beating the Caps was also important to give the Stars a bit of momentum heading into their first road trip of the season, one that will take them to Winnipeg, Minnesota and Colorado before Dallas returns home to host San Jose on Oct. 17.
The point is the Stars are playing a much more disciplined and structured brand of hockey and the penalty kill is much more aggressive and not allowing as much space to the opposition as they have in years past and those are good signs to say the least.
Sure, there are still things for Dallas to work on as this remains a work in progress, but Saturday’s performance was encouraging for a team whose off-season theme has been all about change because that’s exactly what was on display at the AAC on Saturday night, a much different Dallas Stars team.