Niemi stones Pens; Kessel comes up short

DALLAS -- As opening night scripts go, it probably couldn't have turned out better for Antti Niemi and the Dallas Stars.

But what might have been as telling, if not nearly as impressive as Niemi's stellar 37-save shutout of the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins, was seeing Niemi joking around with teammate Kari Lehtonen shortly before meeting with the media after Thursday's 3-0 victory.

Dallas head coach Lindy Ruff rewarded Niemi for a stronger training camp with the start in the Stars' home opener. No doubt it was difficult for Lehtonen, who has been the Stars starter since coming from the Atlanta Thrashers in February 2010.

But after the win, the two could be seen in the dressing room, all smiles, chatting in Finnish.

That relationship will be key for a Stars team that desperately needed to shore up its goaltending as it tries to get back into the playoff fray in the tough-as-nails Central Division after a disappointing miss last season.

The team's failures were not all Lehtonen's failures, but he wasn't as good as he needed to be. GM Jim Nill rolled the dice in bringing in a former Stanley Cup winner in Niemi (Chicago Blackhawks, 2010) who needed a change in scenery from the San Jose Sharks.

The two Finns have been working with new goaltending coach Jeff Reese to find a new rhythm. There will be ups and downs, but Thursday's win was a terrific start.

"They're both competitive guys," Reese said before Thursday's game. "They both want to play, but they've really hit it off. They knew each other before, but now they're comparing ideas. We're all in together trying to think of what the best way, the most comfortable way, to make a save, save selection.

"It's been really interesting to see the two of them, the way they've gotten along."

Niemi admitted that he wasn't sure how things were going to work out.

"You never know before what's going to happen," Niemi said prior to the game. "We didn't know each other that well but I think it's been great. It's been fun so far."

Niemi was outstanding as the Penguins unsuccessfully pushed to erase an early 1-0 deficit with 27 shots over the final two periods, including some frantic moments late in the game.

Other observations about the Stars and the Penguins:

  • This was the highly anticipated first game for former Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, who was acquired in the offseason. Playing with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, the trio generated a number of terrific scoring chances. Kessel had six shots, a number from prime scoring spots near the faceoff circle, but couldn't connect. "We had our chances," Kessel said afterward. "Probably should have buried a couple. I had a couple of chances. I'll bury them next time. I'll make sure I do." Both Crosby and Kessel seemed sure the dynamic between the two will lead to good things down the road. Earlier in the day, Crosby said he anticipates it won't take too many regular season games before the two are in full sync. "I think we've gotten more used to each other with time here," Crosby said. "It'll be an adjustment and we'll talk things out a lot. I think the main thing is that you're seeing improvement and we feel more comfortable out there. I think we'll be at the point pretty soon where there shouldn't be too much that we have to discuss as far as where guys are going to be and things like that. We should have that down pretty quickly, I think." Crosby was held without a shot in Thursday's loss.

  • Defending scoring champion Jamie Benn -- who was honored at center ice before the game with a presentation of the Art Ross Trophy -- scored on the power play to make it 3-0 Dallas just past the midpoint of the third period. He now trails Niemi by one point in the scoring race. Niemi drew assists on the first two goals. He seemed unaware of whether that was a personal best for him in the points department. Ruff's decision to go with Benn, Tyler Seguin and Cody Eakin against the Crosby line was interesting and seemed to work well.

  • On a night when the biggest of the big guns were not significant offensive factors, the Stars got key contributions from a rookie playing in his first NHL game -- Mattias Janmark -- and a guy who is coming off a pretty dreadful season in Ales Hemsky. Janmark came to the Stars from the Detroit Red Wings as part of the Erik Cole deal in March and the 22-year-old converted on a splendid Hemsky pass just 1:39 into the game with what would turn out to be the game winner. Hemsky later ripped a shot through defenseman Rob Scuderi's legs and over goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's shoulder to make it 2-0. A year ago, Hemsky went 21 games to start the season without scoring a goal. Yeah, he remembers that. "Definitely nice," he said with a smile, when asked about getting off to a strong start. "Took me a little while last year to get into it and learn the system and everything, and now I feel much more comfortable this year and hopefully I can keep it going." If the Stars are going to be a playoff team, the bottom six forwards are going to have to be more productive than a year ago and Hemsky is a key part of that.

  • The two biggest names added by the Stars in the offseason were Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, who have a combined five Stanley Cup rings courtesy of their time with the Blackhawks. While Sharp had a quiet night (he had a goal waved off because of goaltender interference), Oduya had a strong night on the blue line, logging 18:13 in ice time. His presence allowed Ruff to apportion his ice time almost equally among his defenders (John Klingberg was the leader with just 18:26). For a team that needed to dramatically improve its overall team defense and is counting on Oduya to be a stabilizing presence, so far so good.