Damiani continuing to produce in year two

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

📝 by Patrick Williams

Texas Stars forward Riley Damiani’s game is clicking, and he is of the mind that his team’s collective game will follow soon.

The Stars had just wrapped up a two-game stay at Canada Life Centre in Winnipeg this past weekend, dropping both games to the Manitoba Moose. In Sunday afternoon’s 5-3 defeat, Damiani took his goal streak to three games while pushing his point streak to five games (three goals, three assists). That surge has taken him to 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 16 games on the season.

“The results aren’t what we want right now,” Damiani said. “But you know, I think everything’s going to come full-circle. We’re going to start stringing some wins together, and everything is going to be all good.”

Everything was all good last season for Damiani, who won the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding rookie. This season’s follow-up has been even more impressive.

Damiani needed 36 games last season to reach 63 shots on goal; through 16 contests this season, he is at 57 shots, tying him for fifth-most in the AHL. For the 21-year-old, that kind of production continues to further his reputation as a potential steal from the 2018 NHL Draft when the Dallas Stars plucked him when he was still available in the fifth round, 137 picks into the event.

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Damiani plays far bigger than his size, and he immediately fit into the AHL game last season. His 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists) in 36 appearances with Texas landed him in a third-place tie in league scoring — and top among rookies — while also earning him spots on the AHL All-Rookie Team and Central Division All-Star Team.

The rest of the AHL has taken notice of Damiani, and he has faced challenging coverage from opponents who are now wise to his skill this season.

“I love [that increased coverage],” Damiani emphasized. “I want guys to try and key in on me. I want the challenge. I want to be able to play through it and play against the top guys in the league and compete every night. So yeah, I love it.”

It was hardly a stretch of the imagination that Damiani would be facing a more challenging path, and he used his summer wisely to counter that increased attention from opponents.

“[My summer goal was to] touch up my whole game,” Damiani explained. “I think a big part of my training was skating with a lot of pros and seeing how they how they prepare for skates and how they kind of operate in the offseason. So skating with a lot NHL-AHL guys, getting to know a few more guys, I think really helped my game this summer.

“And then off the ice is all about putting on weight and getting stronger, and with that you’re going to build some power, you’re going to build some speed.

“I know that’s all going to come as long as I’m putting the work in, and I thought I did this summer. I had a really good summer, a pretty strict diet with my trainer and with the guys up in Dallas. So, everything went as planned, and I was happy with the way it went.”

Photo: Ashley Potts

Given roster turnover as an AHL fact of life, line chemistry can be an elusive goal for players. Last season Damiani clicked with burly forward Adam Mascherin, who left the Dallas organization in the offseason. This season Damiani, a center by trade, is riding with two new partners, fellow second-year pro Ty Dellandrea and captain Curtis McKenzie, and the three are developing strong chemistry.

Dellandrea, a first-round choice by Dallas in 2018, is at five points (two goals, three assists) in 13 games, but he also has Damiani’s faith.

“I think [Dellandrea] has been great,” Damiani said. “He has been in and out of the lineup with a few injuries, and he hasn’t really had [an] ideal start to his season. But you see he’s finding his footing now, and he’s finding his game, and he’s [almost] unstoppable when he’s going like that.”

McKenzie, back with Texas for the first time since the team’s run to Game 7 of the 2018 Calder Cup Finals, has resumed his role as a tough, punishing power forward who complements Damiani’s shifty, creative style. McKenzie, also a former AHL rookie of the year, sits one point behind Damiani for the Texas scoring lead at 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 16 appearances.

“[McKenzie] puts up points,” Damiani stated. “He creates the offense for us, and he creates a lot of space for guys like me and [Dellandrea], just the way me and him can skate. I think we’ve got a lot of good aspects to our line, and I’m liking it so far.

“[McKenzie’s] forecheck is unbelievable. His corner play, just being able to get the puck, separate guys from the puck, so we’re able to come in and make our plays . He plays really physical. For a guy like me, I’m not the most physical guy, but I do like to stir the pot a little bit. I know he’ll protect me out there and protect any one of us in the room, so he’s just been a great guy for us this year coming back.”

At 3-6-1-1 in their past 11 games, the Stars face an important test Wednesday night at Place Bell when they visit the Laval Rocket. Pieces are in place for Texas: the team can score (2.94 goals per game) and has a top-10 penalty kill at 83.8 percent (62-for-74).

“There’s just been little things in certain games,” Damiani outlined. “We play well, but we take too many penalties. Or we play well, and one bounces off a shin pad or off the back of our goalie. Or there’s been little bounces that aren’t going our way, and sometimes you need those moving forward, and we just haven’t really been getting them. We’re working through it.

“And then another thing is just we can’t give up four or five and expect to win every night. We’ve got to tighten up our defensive play. Obviously there are a lot of guys [who] have scored at different levels on our team, and guys [who] have put up major points, but we’ve also got to find roles within our team, where moving forward, we all have our job. And once we stick to it, everything will be rolling. But I think everything’s looking good. I think we’re finding our identity slowly here.

“Things are going to get going.”