Mark it down - the Dallas Stars will be facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs next week.
After building up a 3-0 lead in the second period, the Stars withstood a furious Phoenix comeback attempt to secure a 4-2 victory Thursday night at the Jobing.com Arena, thereby assuring that the Stars will finish no worse than fifth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference playoff race.
The Stars seem to have put their 1-7-0 March slump behind them, as they are now 2-0-2 in their last four after defeating a Phoenix club that was already eliminated from the post-season for just the third time this season.
Sitting three points back with two games remaining in the regular season, Dallas still has an outside shot at overtaking the Ducks for fourth - and taking home-ice advantage in the series. Because they hold the tiebreakers on sixth-place Colorado, the Stars cannot be passed by the Avalanche, even though they are two points back with one game left.
So if the current seedings hold true to form, NHL insiders have indicated that the Stars would open the post-season at Anaheim next Thursday, with Game 2 on Saturday, April 12 and Games 3 and 4 back at the American Airlines Center on Tuesday, April 15 and Thursday April 17, respectively.
On this night, the Stars were missing their top two centers, with center Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro both sitting out due to being ‘under the weather.’ And hours after the team learned that they will be without their top defenseman, Sergei Zubov, for the first round of the playoffs, two other blueliners stepped up to provide some offense.
Rookie Matt Niskanen and Stephane Robidas each scored goals on the power play, which is usually Zubov’s domain, while captain Brenden Morrow added a goal and an assist. Mike Modano sealed the victory with an empty netter in the final minute.
“We need to step up back on the blueline with Zubie out,” Niskanen said. “I thought we had two slip ups as a team tonight, but overall it was a good game for us. We are trying to get back to playing good hockey and having that confidence in our play heading into the playoffs.”
“We were missing some skill out there but a lot of guys had opportunities to step in,” Morrow added. “Our special teams was really good tonight as well, and I think that was the difference.”
Backup goaltender Johan Holmqvist got the start for Dallas, just his second appearance since coming over from Tampa Bay in the Feb. 26 deadline day trade that also brought Richards to town. It was his 99th career NHL contest, and Holmqvist was solid, coming within 6:09 of a shutout and making 21 saves overall for his first win in a Stars uniform.
“I felt good out there,” Holmqvist said. “It was a good opportunity for me to play today, and it was great to have a win here in Phoenix. The guys did a great job in front of me, blocking shots, and I’m glad we got the win.”
“I thought Holmqvist was very strong,” Tippett said. “Nothing fancy, just very steady.”
On the other side, center Kyle Turris, 18, the third overall selection in last June’s NHL Entry Draft, made his NHL debut for the Coyotes after signing a contract on Monday following the completion of his college season at the University of Wisconsin.
After a scoreless first period, the Stars broke the game open and took control with a three-goal second.
Coyotes netminder Ilja Bryzgalov, who was outstanding while making 32 saves, robbed Robidas, snagging his booming slap shot from the point with a spectacular glove save 1:45 into the second.
The Stars then jumped on top, capitalizing on a power play gained when Turris shot the puck into the crowd from the defensive zone. Niskanen drilled a slap shot from the left point that sailed over a screened Bryzgalov’s shoulder at 5:22 for his seventh goal of the season.
Holmqvist then came up big on Phoenix’s Peter Mueller twice within a couple of minutes, first stopping his point-blank wrist shot from the slot and then making a stellar stick save on Mueller’s one-timer from the point on a power play.
Dallas then cashed in on another man advantage of their own, as Robidas connected for his ninth goal of the year at 13:03, booming another slap shot from just inside the blue line past a screened Bryzgalov and in off the post.
“He’s really stepped up,” Morrow said of Robidas. “In the past, he’s kind of been the guy that sacrifices his body, takes the hits to make the play, but we’ve needed him to step up and play with some poise and make some plays. He’s shooting the puck great, he’s moving it well. He’s done a great job quarterbacking the power play - it’s a heck of a guy we’re missing (Zubov), we can’t really fill those shoes, but (Robi)’s doing a pretty good job in his place.”
With 1:23 to go in the second, Modano nearly made it a three-goal lead when he took a backhand stab in front, after a slick pass from Jere Lehtinen behind the net, but Bryzgalov made a fantastic glove snag.
Just 23 seconds later, however, Morrow would make it 3-0, depositing his team-leading 32nd goal of the season. As he pressured Phoenix defenseman Keith Ballard deep in the Coyotes’ zone, Morrow stole the puck and quickly hammered a point-blank shot between a surprised Bryzgalov’s pads.
Entering the third with a commanding 3-0 lead, the Stars had the first scoring opportunity of the period while on a power play three and a half minutes in, as Philippe Boucher ripped a slap shot from the point, but Bryzgalov made a nice save. Then with Bryzgalov down, Niklas Hagman had two point-blank rebound chances, but Bryzgalov still managed to keep the puck out.
About 1:25 later, Morrow fed a pretty backhand pass from the right side of the crease across to Trevor Daley cutting down through the left face-off circle, but Bryzgalov made an impressive sliding save on Daley’s one-timer.
A fight that seemed to spark Phoenix occurred at the 7:26 mark, when Krys Barch squared off with Coyotes rookie Daniel Carcillo, who leads the NHL in penalty minutes. After a lot of sizing each other up and a couple of quick punches, Carcillo landed a one-punch knockdown, catching Barch square on the jaw.
The Coyotes then had a key chance 1:40 later, as Martin Hanzal, on the rush into the Dallas zone, stopped in the right circle and launched a wrist shot that Ballard deflected as he sped through the slot, and Holmqvist made a nice pad save.
Then, with 7:18 remaining, Holmqvist again came up big, this time stopping Coyotes captain Shane Doan on a breakaway, making a pad stop as Doan tried to slip a shot through the five-hole.
Phoenix then made things interesting as Enver Lisin scored with 6:09 to go, whipping a quick wrist shot past Robidas in the left face-off circle that whizzed past Holmqvist’s glove and in. It was the Coyote rookie’s fourth goal of the year.
Carcillo then fought Steve Ott with 3:32 remaining in regulation, and once again, the Phoenix rookie had the edge in the bout, rousing the home crowd and firing up the Coyotes even more. Even though the Stars emerged from the incident with a power play, Phoenix took the momentum and pulled to within one just 31 seconds later.
Ballard atoned for his grievous giveaway to Morrow earlier by connecting for his sixth goal of the season and first shorthanded marker at 16:59. Doan controlled the puck along the left sideboards and fed the trailing Ballard in the high slot, and Ballard unleashed a fierce wrist shot that clanked off the goalpost and in to make it 3-2.
Phoenix kept pressing and Lisin had an opportunity to even the score with 1:17 left, as he ripped a wrist shot from the left circle, but Holmqvist made the save.
Then, with Bryzgalov on the bench for an extra attacker, Modano intercepted Coyote defenseman Ed Jovonovski’s pass just inside the Phoenix blue line and slid the puck into the empty net to clinch the win.
“I thought we worked hard for the most part and did enough to win,” Tippett said. “The power play got us a couple goals and Holmqvist was steady. We knew it was going to have to be a hard working game and the guys stepped up to provide that.”
Holmqvist, who, in his only other start for the Stars on March 15, surrendered three goals on 12 shots in the first period before getting pulled in a 4-3 loss to Vancouver, faced eight shots and stopped them all this time in the opening period.
“I think it was a good opportunity today to play here,” Holmqvist said. “Obviously, it was a lot better than my first period, that I had at home, and it was good to get this underneath my belt.”
It took six and a half minutes for him to face his first real test of the contest, making a nice save on former Star Mathias Tjarnqvist’s quick wrist shot from the left circle.
Holmqvist then made a nice stop on the youngster Turris about a minute later, denying his wrister from the right circle. Turris ended up leading the Coyotes with five shots on goal in the contest.
The Stars nearly broke the scoreless tie on Hagman’s blazing slap shot from the left circle with 6:39 left in the first, but Bryzgalov made a key shoulder save.
Bryzgalov then made another nice stop on Loui Eriksson’s wrist shot from low in the right circle with 2:25 remaining, after working a nifty give-and-go with Joel Lundqvist.
Both teams now turn around and travel back to Dallas to face off again less than 24 hours later, Friday night at the American Airlines Center (7:30 pm start, FSN), which will be Fan Appreciation Night.
The Stars then close out the 2007-08 regular season with a matinee Sunday afternoon (2pm, my27) against the San Jose Sharks before the real season begins next week against Anaheim.
“We’ve had some great games against that team,” Morrow said of the Ducks, when informed the matchup was set. “You’re going to have to go through them at some point, so we’ll have to do it the first round. We’re trying to build our team to make sure we’re at the top of our game for that first game, and move on and try to keep building tomorrow night.”
- Morrow extended his scoring streak to six games, having collected five goals and two assists over that span. It is the seventh point streak of at least four games Morrow has registered this season.
- Robidas now has two goals and four points in his last three games.
- Niskanen’s goal was his first in 14 games. Interestingly, his last goal also came in Phoenix, during a 5-2 loss on Feb. 14. He led the club with five shots on goal.
- Modano’s empty netter was his 21st goal of the season, extending his point streak to four games, as he has compiled two goals and three assists over that stretch.
- With an assist, Eriksson now has three points (two goals, one assist) in his last three outings.
- Joel Lundqvist, who was back on the ice after two consecutive healthy scratches, earned an assist on Robidas’ goal, his 10th of the season.
- Defenseman Philippe Boucher, in his fourth game back in the lineup after sitting out six in a row with a shoulder injury, picked up his first point, an assist, since his return. It was his 12th of the season and the 200th of his career. Boucher led all Stars in ice time for the second consecutive game, logging 22:41.
- The Stars are now 3-4-0 against the Coyotes this season, having been outscored 23-16 in those contests, after going 7-1-0 and outscoring them 28-15 last year.
- With the two centers out, winger Brad Winchester returned to the lineup after sitting out four straight as a healthy scratch. He had one shot on goal in 9:33 of ice time.
- Ribeiro, the Stars’ leading scorer with 83 points, sat out his first contest since he missed the season’s first three games with an ankle injury.
- Richards missed his first game since joining the Stars in the deadline day trade on Feb. 26 and just the third overall in his seventh NHL season, ending his consecutive games streak at 354, which was one of the longest active streaks in the league. In 12 games with Dallas, Richards has two goals and 11 points.
- Goaltender Marty Turco had made 13 straight appearances, 12 of which were starts, and 19 of 20 before sitting out this game.
- Tippett reported after the morning skate that Zubov, who missed his 31st consecutive contest, traveled to Germany for a procedure to address lingering problems from a sports hernia injury and that it went well.Zubov will fly back to Dallas on Friday and will be re-evaluated. While there is no specific timetable for his return, he will very likely miss the entire first round and it was suggested he could be out up to a month.
“You can’t replace a player like Sergei Zubov,” fellow defenseman Mattias Norstrom said. “He’s not only our best defenseman, he could be our best player on the team, so we have to, as a group, not worry what Zubie isn’t doing out there, we have to play our game and help our team that way and that’s the only way we can be successful.”