Stars 3, Blue Jackets 1
The Dallas Stars were delighted that James Neal
was in the right place at the right time.
The surging sophomore winger Neal scored twice on rebounds from in tight, and backup Alex Auld bounced back from a below-par start to make 33 sparkling saves in Dallas' 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night at American Airlines Center.
"He's a good player, and that's what he does," defenseman Stephane Robidas
said about the Stars leading goal scorer Neal. "He shoots the puck and plays hard, and that's exactly what he did tonight. That's what we need. That's what makes us successful, when guys score goals and other guys contribute defensively and do their job. That's how we have success as a team."
The win was the Stars sixth in their last nine at home -- avenging a loss to San Jose on Monday -- and sent the reeling Blue Jackets to their eighth consecutive defeat. Columbus has won only twice since beating Dallas Nov. 19, a span of 18 games.
The Stars also contributed to a Blue Jackets franchise record, as Columbus lost a team-record 11th straight road game.
also scored, and both Brad Richards
and Loui Eriksson
each added a pair of assists for Dallas, winners of two of its last three.
The line of Neal, Richards and Eriksson dominated a beleaguered Columbus team, as the trio combined for six points and eight shots while being a consistent threat every time they stepped onto the ice.
Neal nearly got his second career hat trick with 15 seconds left in regulation, but his shot towards the empty Columbus net was blocked by Blue Jackets forward Kristian Huselius.
Auld, meanwhile, was steady throughout after he was pulled midway through his last start last Thursday against Atlanta when he allowed three goals on 15 shots. He consistently covered and smothered potential rebounds, or deftly kicked shots out of harms way to improve to 5-2-3 on the season.
"You obviously want to build on (these games) and have more of them than the bad ones," he said. "I thought the guys limited their chances, even though they had a few more shots than we did. I thought we did a good job keeping most of the stuff from the outside. There weren't too many times I was scrambling, not knowing where the puck was. That was a good sign."
Rick Nash scored the lone Columbus goal, and Steve Mason finished with 25 saves.
"I think we had a lot of really good performances by a lot of people today, but we're a team that needs everybody there," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. "That's the way we have to play to win, and we're still missing a few guys. We had some guys who played great. We played well, but we have parts of our game that can get better."
Neal notched his second of the night, and 18th of the season, midway through the third period to give the Stars a 3-1 edge. Richards wristed a shot from the right circle that Mason spit out, but Neal was there cruising in tight to shovel it home with a backhand.
It was Neal's fourth two-goal game this season, and second in his last three games.
With the score deadlocked at 1 after 20 minutes, Neal made it 2-1 at 6:18 of the middle frame. Robidas' shot from the right point was blocked by Mason, and both Richards and Eriksson took whacks at the rebound. But the puck eventually lingered in the low slot before Neal was able to finally corral it and snap it home.
The Blue Jackets struck first when Nash popped in his 19th at 11:16 of the first period. Antoine Vermette lugged the puck into the Dallas zone along the left boards before spinning around and throwing a backhand pass to Nash just inside the left circle.
Nash took a couple of strides before zipping a wrist shot over Auld's left shoulder for a 1-0 lead.
"I thought it was more like a 3-on-3 and I went into the wall," Robidas said about the play. "I opened up the middle and I was out of position. It was my fault. You can't give a guy like Nash too much time like that. I think after that we played a lot stronger and stuck with the program. If you stick with the program it doesn't matter what the score is. You have to stay focused, and that's what happened tonight."
Benn tied it with a dazzling goal, his eighth, with 2:37 left in the first. After accepting a drop pass just inside the blue line from Tom Wandell
, Benn did a terrific toe-drag to get past Huselius before snapping off a shot from the slot that whizzed past Mason.
"We had 60 minutes of effort, and Alex Auld made the saves when we needed him to make them," Dallas coach Marc Crawford said. "It wasn't a masterpiece, it wasn't perfect, but I thought we worked hard in a lot of areas. Our defense did a terrific job and kept them to the outside for the most part. I was really pleased with our coverage down low, the help we were getting from the forwards, the determination of blocked shots and the willingness to compete. We said that's what we needed going into the game, and I'm happy to say we got it."
The Stars won't play or practice until Saturday when they take a quick trip to Denver to play the Colorado Avalanche (8 p.m., FSN) before returning to American Airlines Center for games against Chicago then Anaheim on New Year's Eve next week.
The Avs are the surprise of the NHL this year. After not qualifying for the playoffs last season while finishing in last in the Western Conference, Colorado led the Northwest Division with 48 points heading into Wednesday's action.
--Defenseman Matt Niskanen
returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch on Monday against San Jose. Center Brian Sutherby
also played for the first time in five games, replacing Fabian Brunnstrom
--Right wing Jere Lehtinen missed his second straight game because of a lower-body injury.
--After not allowing a power-play attempt for the first time since 1999 in their last game against the Sharks on Monday, it took only 4 1/2 minutes for the Stars to find themselves shorthanded. Eriksson was whistled for hooking early in the first period.
--Eriksson extended his career-long points streak to eight games. It ties the team-high for the year set earlier by Richards.
--Richards earned his 100th point with Dallas on Neal's first goal. The playmaking center has assists in each of the last three games.
--Richards now has 590 career NHL points, which is one behind former Minnesota North Stars' forward Al MacAdam for the all-time leading scorer in NHL history among Prince Edward Island natives.
--Robidas is two games away from playing in his 600th career NHL game.
--Sutherby and Columbus right wing Mike Blunden got into a scrap 44 seconds into the third period.
--Neal has seven goals in his last 10 games.
--The Stars are 13-3-2 at home against Columbus since the Blue Jackets entered the league in 2000.
|Three star selections