Bill Meltzer: Star Gazing: Opening Night Lineup Taking Shape

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In two nights, the puck will drop on the 2014-15 season for a Dallas Stars club that enters the campaign with heightened expectations after reaching the playoffs last season and adding the likes of Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky and Patrick Eaves in the offseason. Dallas will face a tough challenge right off the bat when the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks pay a visit to the American Airlines Center.

After paring down the roster to 22 players and finally getting restricted free agents Cody Eakin and Brenden Dillon signed to new contracts, head coach Lindy Ruff’s team has gotten down to the business of preparing for opening night. The main question that remains is some of the line combinations on the top end of the lineup.

The Stars official website reported that Valeri Nichushkin (flu) participated in yesterday’s practice at the American Airlines Center but was reportedly not up to full speed yet. Ruff had the second-year player skate on the fourth line, with Colton Sceviour substituting on the top line. Additionally, veteran Erik Cole did not skate with the club at practice but took skating after practice under the direction of the assistant coaches.

Ruff told Stars Inside Edge reporter Mark Stepneski that he is not yet sure who will skate with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on the opening night top line or on the second line with Spezza and Hemsky. The coach said he would rotate different personnel into those slots and whomever clicks with the top four forwards will “stay for good periods of time.”

Throughout Nichushkin’s brief time in the NHL, Ruff has taken a tough love approach with the young player. Although Ruff couched things in terms of Sceviour playing well and saying that Nichuskin was still part of the mix to earn a first-line spot, the club seems to be creating competition as a means of pushing the 19-year-old Nichushkin to consistently bring his “A” game to the rink in his second pro season.

Last year, it was not uncommon for Ruff to move Nichushkin down in the lineup — or to scratch him on a few occasions — when he felt the player was capable of delivering more. That approach seems likely to continue, especially now that the club has improved depth up front. However, if Nichushkin puts in a couple strong practices now that he’s feeling better, he would still seem to be top candidate to skate on the right wing of the Seguin line as the season starts.

According to the Stars’ website, these were yesterday’s line combinations:

FORWARDS

Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Colton Sceviour

Patrick Eaves – Jason Spezza – Ales Hemsky

Antoine Roussel – Cody Eakin – Ryan Garbutt

Shawn Horcoff – Vernon Fiddler – Valeri Nichushkin

Erik Cole (skated after the main practice)

DEFENSE

Alex Goligoski – Trevor Daley

Brenden Dillon – Jordie Benn

Patrik Nemeth – Kevin Connauton

Jamie Oleksiak (rotated into reps with the others during practice)

GOALTENDERS

Kari Lehtonen

Anders Lindbäck

The main purpose for holding yesterday’s practice at the AAC was to help the Stars’ players get used to the new boards that have been installed at the rink. The boards are said to be extremely lively, so players will have to expect the puck to carom. Early in the season, there will probably be some fortuitous and not-so-fortuitous bounces that play into the outcomes of close games. By giving the Stars a head start on getting adjusted, it is hoped the team will quickly gain a sort of home ice advantage by being more familiar with the quirks with the highly flexible boards.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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