The Dallas Stars will enter the Olympic break in a playoff position. The Stars took over the final wild card spot in the Western Conference with a 2-1 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes Saturday night at American Airlines Center.
“We’ve come from a long ways,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “You’ve got to give the guys a lot of credit for digging in because we went through a pretty tough stretch. I thought if we could get it within three or four points by the break we’d be a serious contender for a spot. We’ve really exceeded that expectation. Those dark days in January we’ve put behind us. It’s been a good run for us.”
Kari Lehtonen stopped 26 of 27 shots and Ray Whitney and Valeri Nichushkin scored goals for the Stars, who entered the break with points with eight of their last nine games (6-1-2). That run came on the heels of a 1-8-1 slide that had the Stars nine points out of a playoff spot just a few weeks ago.
“We had a bit of a tough stretch there, but we found a way to get out of it and found what we have to do to win hockey games again,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “I think we’ve been playing great from top to bottom.”
The Stars have had two big wins over the Coyotes in the last five days. The Stars and Coyotes have identical 27-21-10 records, but the Stars own the regulation/overtime win (ROW) tiebreaker, 24-23, and as a result the Stars sit in the eighth and final playoff spot.
“They were huge games, both of them and it was really nice to play well as a team before a long break. That always makes it more fun,” said Lehtonen. “I am not worrying about that (playoff spot) too much right now, I am just trying to do my work and play well, but it’s good that we are moving in the right direction. There are still plenty of games left. We just have to keep going.”
Once again, the Stars were a tough nut to crack defensively on Saturday. They gave up few quality scoring chances and what they did surrender, Lehtonen was able to stop. Over the last nine games the Stars have allowed just 12 goals for an average of 1.33 per game.
“I thought on the defensive side we played a real smart game,” said Ruff. “We didn’t give them a lot of high quality situations. That’s frustrating for a team. We did a lot of good things tonight.”
The Coyotes, who were coming off a 2-0 win over Chicago on Friday, have not won consecutive games since January 16-18.
“It’s a tough turnaround, but it’s a big game. You’ve got to find ways to win,” said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. “We just don’t do things smart enough to give ourselves the best chance.”
The Stars scored on the first shot of the game to take a 1-0 lead. With a delayed penalty call coming on Phoenix, Whitney scored off the rush, skating to the slot and beating Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith with a wrist shot 2:10 into the game.
The Stars played a strong second and it paid off with 34 seconds left in the period when Nichushkin deflected a Trevor Daley shot past Smith to give the Stars a 2-0 lead heading into the third period.
Lehtonen came up big in the third, stopping 12 shots including a nice save on Mike Ribeiro with Phoenix on the power play early in the period. The Coyotes were finally able to break through, but it came with 15 seconds left when Radim Vrbata scored with Smith out of the net and Phoenix on a power play to make it a 2-1 final.
The Stars and the rest of the rest of the NHL now take a break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Their next game is Feb. 27, when they take on the Carolina Hurricanes at American Airlines Center. Jamie Benn (Canada), Kari Lehtonen (Finland), Valeri Nichushkin (Russia) and Lindy Ruff (associate coach/Canada) all head to Sochi to take part in the 2014 games.
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