By Kris Smith
The Kitmart Dundee Stars take to the ice for their third straight home game against the in-form Belfast Giants in the first game of the Challenge Cup on Saturday night.
The Giants have added 12 new faces to their 23-man squad as head coach Adam Keefe has been busy strengthening his side after a successful first year behind the bench. The Giants lifted the Challenge Cup after beating holders Cardiff who were fighting for a clean sweep of all trophies.
Belfast have lost their top two point scorers from last season as Brendan Connolly, who put 73 points with 27 goals plus 46 assists, joined Glasgow Clan. They also lost Sebastien Sylvestre who tallied 72 points, although they have retained the services of Blair Riley who contributed 57 points through 14 goals and 43 assists.
A big blow for the Northern Irish club was losing netminder Jackson Whistle to Sheffield but Keefe quickly filled the gap by bringing in Tyler Beskorowany from the no-longer Edinburgh Capitals. He was then swift in tying-up the other two members of his goalkeeping unit. Both Andrew Dickson and Dundee-born Stephen Murphy have been handed new one-year deals at the club. Ex-Star Paul Swindlehurst has also moved into the SSE Arena after Keefe signed the 25-year old defenceman from Manchester.
Belfast won both their preseason games against the University of Manitoba Bisons, they skated to a 6-1 victory in the first game before narrowly claiming the second by 5 goals to 4.
Dundee opened last season against the Giants and took the extra points after a tense shootout, but Belfast would exact their revenge throughout the year. However, with very different squads on both sides, the results could be very different.
Stars have added many new faces to their roster and each brings something different, be it experience, speed or size. The final import player, Fabrizio Ricci, joined up with his teammates this week and Omar Pacha now has a full squad with no injuries.
EHC Freiburg provided a good test last weekend for Stars, a 5-1 win on the Saturday for Dundee lit a fire in the Wolves who on Sunday came back from 2-1 down to steal a 3-2 win in overtime.
There will be many key players for Dundee this season but ones who have already stood out are experienced forward François Bouchard who has great vision and is deadly around the net. Matt Bissonnette hit the ground running with two goals against Freiburg. Charlie Corcoran has already displayed his skill and offensive abilities with a beautifully worked and finished goal last Saturday.
A lot of size has been added to the blue line but Pacha has a good mix in the defensive unit of stay at home defencemen like Petr Chaloupka and also quick offensive players who like to join the rush, such as Drydn Dow.
In his first season outside of his native Sweden, Pontus Sjögren appears to have adjusted well to his new surroundings. Despite conceding two goals over the weekend, the veteran netminder was never greatly tested.
The Stars head coach was pleased with how his team performed in the two exhibition games and said there was many “positives”.
Pacha said: “I learnt a few things about the team and I saw a lot of positives.
“We worked hard the previous week on details that we want to get better as a team and we saw a lot of good things, so it was a huge step forward that weekend but again there is still a lot of things we are working on, on a daily basis to make sure we get better every single day.”
The Challenge Cup is always the first competition teams compete in and Pacha described the importance of picking up points early.
He said: “Well it is so important to get points early, especially in the Challenge Cup phase to make sure we get past that round robin as quickly as possible but is it, do or die this weekend, no it is not.
“It is more about getting better as a team, making sure we do the little things right and perfect the details that we learnt over the last few weeks.
“If we are able to get a few points this weekend and take advantage of home ice, I am sure it will look good for the rest of the Challenge Cup phase.”
Looking forward to the first two games of the regular season, Omar added: “It is the first time we are playing teams from our league, I think we are just a little excited to see what other teams have in stock and it will be fun to see ourselves compared to two competitive teams.
“The results are not the do all, mean all but we have to make sure we are able to compete both nights and if we do that I believe we will give ourselves a really good chance to win the hockey games.”
Another defenceman who has improved the quality at the back for Stars is Mike Sullivan. He joined from Italian side Asiago and adds size, strength and a canon of a slapshot to the Dundee blueline.
Heading into his second week as a Star, Sullivan said: “It has been an easy transition for me so far this year, the management has been top class and my teammates have been incredibly welcoming.
“I cannot wait to continue to explore Dundee and enjoy this great city with my new team.”
“This week has been a great week of preparation; the team has welcomed our final member in Fabrizio so it has been nice to practice with a full roster.”
In his first taste of Elite League action, Mike explains what is needed from him and his teammates to achieve a positive outcome against Belfast.
He said: “This week has been focused on the execution of our systems because we know Belfast is a well-rounded and experienced team, and we want to be at our best all weekend.
“The key of the weekend will be to execute at a high level from puck drop to final whistle.
“We had great team discipline last Sunday so that is also a major key to having a positive weekend.”
Finally, Sullivan shared his thoughts on playing in front of another large Stars support, he added “Excited is an understatement when it comes to playing in front of a big Dundee crowd.”
Saturday’s game faces-off at 7pm and tickets are still available from the DIA box office and online.