November 6, 2013

Ex-Terrier Chiasson's homecoming flies under the radar

By Andrew Merritt

Above, Stars forward Alex Chiasson fights for a loose puck in front of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. Below left, the former Terrier celebrates one of his 36 career collegiate goals. Photos: Getty Images (Dallas); Dave Arnold Photography (BU)

BOSTON – For one of the Dallas Stars, Tuesday night’s game in Boston was a return to a city where he had experienced ups and downs, great achievements and tough losses, and where his departure came a little bit earlier than one might have hoped when he first pulled on the hometown sweater.

We’re talking, of course, about Alex Chiasson. Who were you thinking of?

OK, yes, Tuesday night’s game was so saturated with hype about the return of Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley to TD Garden for the first time since their July 4 trade, and Chiasson’s first game in Boston since he finished his career at Boston University flew so far under the radar, you can be forgiven for not noticing at all. Chiasson, who scored 36 goals and 63 assists during three very good years at BU, last played at the Garden on March 16, 2012, in a 5-3 loss to Maine in the Hockey East semifinals.

Since then, Chiasson has had to work hard to earn the chance to come back and play in Boston. He left BU following the end of his junior year, and joined Dallas’ AHL affiliate in Austin. With the Texas Stars, he played nine games at the end of 2011-12, and 57 in 2012-13 before being called up to make his NHL debut with Dallas in a 5-2 loss at Anaheim on April 3 this year.

Chiasson didn’t get on the scoresheet in that game, but over the next five, he exploded for six goals and an assist. He was held without a point again in Dallas’ season finale, but he’d already drawn plenty of attention, and earned a spot with the big club to start this season.

He started the 2013-14 season on the same kind of roll with which he’d finished 2012-13. He picked up at least a point in five of Dallas’ first six games, including a goal and assist against Winnipeg on Oct. 11 (a 4-1 victory). He had his best night as an NHLer on Oct. 24, scoring two goals and an assists while taking five shots in a 5-1 Dallas win over Calgary.

All told, he had 11 goals and five assists in his first 16 games as an NHL player. Then reality set in.

In the six games since the breakout night against Calgary, Chiasson has picked up just one point, an assist in the Stars’ win over Ottawa on Sunday. But the drought hasn’t dampened the impression Chiasson has made on his teammates and his new coach.

“Obviously, he got off to a great start scoring-wise,” Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said after the Stars’ shootout win over the Bruins Tuesday night. “He’s just a good player, he plays well in all areas of the ice. He plays well in the neutral zone, he defends well, he’s a penalty killer.

“He’s been a little snakebitten lately, finishing chances, but he’s really played well for us.”

The 23-year-old from Montreal is trying to take this dip in stride, especially after his NHL career got off to such a blazing start.

“It’s pro hockey,” Chiasson said. “I don’t think anyone expected me to score every game. This is still my first year. I’ve only played maybe 20 games in the NHL. It’s still a learning process. I’ve got a lot of things I’ve got to work on. I don’t worry about scoring goals. I worry about playing my game and trying to contribute as much as I can.”

Tuesday night, he played in a familiar place with some familiar faces. Although Chiasson was on the wing on Seguin’s line against Ottawa, in Boston he was slotted in with Ray Whitney and Cody Eakin, the latter of whom was his linemate for a stretch in Austin last year.

“He’s just so easy to play with, and some guys just find their niche right away,” said Eakin, who’s a year younger than Chiasson but played all 48 games with Dallas once last season’s lockout ended. “He did what he did to get there, and didn’t really change his game that much.”

Tuesday night’s game was the second homecoming in less than a week for Chiasson, who on Oct. 29 played his first career game in his hometown, against the Montreal Canadiens club he grew up idolizing.

That was a moment, he said, that brought to life the reality of being in the NHL.

“For me, I think the last week has been all emotions. I played in Montreal, and being from Quebec it was really a dream come true,” he said. “I had about 60 people come to the game. I think from that moment I realized a little more. But this is a business and nothing is guaranteed. I’ve just got to do my job every day.”

Although his return to Boston meant a meaningful visit to BU and new coach David Quinn, the Garden wasn’t always the kindest place for Chiasson.

When he started at BU in 2009, the Terriers were fresh off a magical season in which they won the Beanpot and Hockey East titles on Causeway Street, before going on to take the program’s fifth NCAA championship. Yet during Chiasson’s three years on Commonwealth Avenue, the Terriers went without a Beanpot or league title.

That’s not to say Chiasson doesn’t have any good memories from Causeway Street. As a freshman in the 2010 Beanpot semifinals, for instance, he scored with less than six minutes remaining to break a 1-1 deadlock and put the Terriers in the title game, which they lost to rival Boston College. All told, in eight games at the Garden as a Terrier, Chiasson scored four goals and three assists.

“This was awesome,” he said after Tuesday’s Dallas win. “It’s always a building I loved to play in. I never got to win the big trophy, either the Beanpot or Hockey East in the playoffs. But it was a great win tonight, I thought. We’ve never played like this so far this year.

“For me, of course it was great. I had my roommate from college, Ross Gaudet, come to the game. It’s always fun coming back to a place like this. I kind of feel like I belong here.”

Chiasson’s Garden return was a little less conspicuous than that of Seguin, who scored one of the Stars’ shootout goals. Chiasson, who played a hefty 25 shifts totaling 19:50 on ice, was stuffed by Boston’s Tuukka Rask on his chance to end the shootout, and very nearly handed the Bruins a power play with less than two minutes to go in regulation after batting a puck over the glass in the defensive zone.

Though replays showed Chiasson should have been whistled for delay of game, his infraction went unseen by referees Chris Rooney and Justin St. Pierre.

Asked about getting away with the play after the game, Chiasson gave a sheepish “no comment.”

Regardless, Chiasson showed even in a quiet night that he’s earned the right to call himself an NHL player. He credits his time at BU for preparing him for the bright lights of the big leagues.

“I think the way the school and the program is, they run it like any NHL team,” he said. “The fact that the facilities are top-end – those are things you only realize after you leave. But they run the program like a pro program. You look at some of us the last couple of years that have made it, I played with (Current NHLers Kevin) Shattenkirk, (Eric) Gryba, (Nick) Bonino, Charlie (Coyle), (Matt) Nieto, I mean, that’s pretty good. And they’re impact players, they’re not guys that are in and out of the lineup.”

As for playing with the guy that was the star of the show, Chiasson had nothing but good words to say about Seguin, who left Boston with a trail of criticism behind him.

“I think he’s been really good for us, he’s been a good player, a good guy. He’s awesome to me.”

Unlike Seguin, Chiasson’s spot in the Dallas lineup isn’t that secure. If his recent scoring slump turn into a longer downswing, he may end up further down the depth chart – perhaps even back in Austin and the AHL. But for now, he’s just trying to stick to what got him into a Dallas sweater in the first place, and what allowed him to make Tuesday’s less-heralded homecoming.

Twitter: @A_Merritt