Dallas contingent starring early at Worlds
If not for an April collapse that saw the club fall from first to fourth place in the Pacific Division, the Dallas Stars would have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring for the first time since 2008. While the members of the team would have preferred to play in the NHL postseason, a half-dozen Dallas players received the opportunity to represent their home countries at the 2012 IIHF World Championship in Helsinki and Stockholm.
To date, five of the seven Stars players in the tournament have been standouts for their respective teams. Left winger Loui Eriksson (Sweden) leads all players in scoring through the first three games, compiling three power-play goals and six points overall. Canada's Jamie Benn, who spent most of the first half of the season on Eriksson's line in Dallas, shares the tourney goal-scoring lead with his Stars teammate.
Coming off an outstanding regular season in Dallas, Finland goaltender Kari Lehtonen hasn't skipped a beat at the Worlds. He has already recorded a shutout and has turned aside 47 of 49 shots in his two preliminary-round starts to date.
Meanwhile, Stars defensemen Alex Goligoski (USA) and Philip Larsen (Denmark) have quickly emerged as key members of the starting blue lines for their respective teams at the World Championship. Larsen, who enjoyed an impressive rookie campaign in Dallas this season, by far leads all skaters for Denmark with an average 25:51 of ice time per game and 114 total shifts skated across all manpower situations. He has one assist for the winless Danes. Goligoski has logged nearly 19 minutes of ice time and has a pair of assists.
Stars rookie goaltender Richard Bachman is also at the tournament, representing the USA. He has yet to see action, dressing as the backup to Detroit Red Wings netminder Jimmy Howard. Rookie forward Tomas Vincour has not suited up in a game for the Czech Republic.
In addition to the aforementioned Dallas players, defenseman Trevor Daley turned down an invitation to join Canada at the Worlds. His wife is due to give birth while the tournament is in progress.
"It's always fun to go and play there; I played last year, too," Eriksson told the Stars' official website. "And this year it's in Sweden and Finland, so it's going to be fun to go home and play for your home country. And to play some more games, too. It's always fun."
Last year, things did not go as well for the three Dallas players representing Sweden at the tournament. All three representatives -- Eriksson, Tom Wandell and Nicklas Grossmann (now with the Philadelphia Flyers) -- sustained injuries early in the tournament. Eriksson eventually returned from a groin pull to score three goals and four points en route to a silver medal. Grossmann did not return after sustaining a knee injury in the second game. Wandell, who injured a shoulder prior to the start of the tournament, did not suit up at all.
Eriksson, who is playing in his third World Championship, wasted little time asserting himself this year. Playing in from of his home fans at Stockholm's Globe Arena, Eriksson has posted points in all three of Tre Kronor's games to date. He tallied the insurance goal in the Swedes' opening game 3-1 win over Norway, followed it up with a pair of assists in a 4-1 victory over the Czech Republic and then posted two goals and an assist in a 6-4 win against Denmark.
As has often been the case in the NHL, Eriksson's strong play on the ice has often flown under the radar in his native Sweden. The current tournament on home ice has been a coming out party for the left winger, who played in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game. He is now gaining acclaim as one of Tre Kronor's prime weapons, although he had already been a highly-productive NHL player for several years.
"I like it pretty much to keep a low profile and not be seen so much," Eriksson told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet earlier this week. "When I later had that season [2008-09] when I had 36 goals, there was a lot of talk about my goal scoring. But I feel very much like a two-way player. In the beginning when I went over, I had a defensive role and, later, the offense came into its own."
Lehtonen is also receiving a brighter spotlight in his native Finland than he has at any point since the time he was one of the most highly-touted goaltending prospects to emerge from the country's goaltending-rich hockey program. This is his second World Championship tournament as a starter (third overall), but his first since 2006.
In the tournament opener, the Lions managed only a late first-period goal by Janne Niskala. Lehtonen made the lead stand up for the tournament co-hosts, turning aside all 21 shots he faced. Lehtonen had the night off when Petri Vehanen blanked Slovakia on 26 shots in Finland's 1-0 victory in its second game, but returned to backstop the Finns to 5-2 victory over Switzerland. Two goals by Detroit Red Wings forward Valtteri Filppula and 26 saves by Lehtonen led the way.
Benn is playing in his first World Championship for Canada. He opened the scoring in its 3-2 win over Slovakia in the first game. The 2012 NHL All-Star Game selection was held scoreless in Canada's 5-4 overtime upset loss to the USA, but rebounded to punish France for a pair of goals and one assist in a 7-2 blowout.
Goligoski, meanwhile, opened the tournament with a pair of helpers and 22:06 of ice time in the USA's 7-2 romp over France. Although the offensive-minded defenseman did not get on the score sheet in the overtime win against the Canadians, he recorded a team-high five shots (along with Kyle Palmieri and Justin Abdelkader) and finished with a plus-one rating.
Author: Bill Meltzer | NHL.com Correspondent