COLUMBUS – This was one they absolutely had to have, and the Dallas Stars delivered.
After putting forth a lackluster effort in a 4-1 loss to Phoenix at home Tuesday night, the Stars faced questions about their work ethic and commitment. Facing the club owning the NHL’s worst record although they had won their previous two games, Dallas needed to make a statement, and certainly did so, defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-2 Thursday night at Nationwide Arena.
The triumph was particularly important because it vaulted the Stars from 12th place in the ultra-competitive Western Conference standings into brief possession of the eighth and final playoff spot with 58 points. The Stars, who had been 1-2-0 in their previous three games while getting outscored 10-5, looked much better in this one overall, but still ended up dropping back to ninth following the Calgary-Phoenix game later Thursday night.
“Those last 30 games of the year, everybody’s fighting for position and you have other teams fighting for other reasons, for jobs and whatnot - there’s no easy games, we know that,” said defenseman Alex Goligoski, who scored a goal and an assist. “I think our work ethic was a lot better tonight and that’s always good to see.”
Jamie Benn opened the scoring just 1:35 into the contest, then added an empty netter in the final moments to lead the Dallas offense. In addition to Goligoski, fellow blueliner Stephane Robidas also contributed a goal and an assist, while Mike Ribeiro chipped in with two assists.
Goaltender Kari Lehtonen was outstanding in net again, making 26 saves to secure his 20th win of the season.
“I thought he was real good,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said of Lehtonen, who was making his seventh start in the last eight games. “I thought he cleaned a lot of our stuff up, and most of our stuff was self-inflicted again a little bit. It’s less than before but still some of the same symptoms. We’re going to move forward in that direction for sure, we’re going to cut those things out.”
After building a commanding 3-0 lead early in the second period, the Stars got into penalty trouble, putting Columbus on three consecutive power plays and surrendering two goals to turn what looked like it could have been a blowout into another tense, tight battle. But the Stars managed to keep things on track and closed it out in the third.
“We had a 3-0 lead, there’s no reason for us to let them come back in the game,” said Robidas. “We should have just kept the game simple and that was our success in the first - we kept things simple, put the puck in deep, put some pressure on them and spent some time in their zone. We turned the puck over a few times, took some penalties because guys were getting tired and it’s tough when you play in your own zone, it’s just not the right way to play.”
It was a stretch that could have caused them to crumble, but instead, the Stars stuck with it and played a strong defensive game in the third period to preserve the precious two points.
“We were more consistent,” Gulutzan said. “We still turned the puck over a little too much. A couple of things we learned about ourselves in the second period about how we need to play, but I thought in the third period, we came out pretty strong and held the lead pretty good.”
Carrying a somewhat tenuous 3-2 lead into the final period, the Stars got a big save from Lehtonen 5:01 in when Antoine Vermette squeezed between defensemen Trevor Daley and Nicklas Grossman for a point-blank wrist shot.
Dallas was a bit fortunate at 13:59 when Jeff Carter’s one-timer from the right face-off circle zipped past Lehtonen but clanked off the right post.
Shortly after that, Carter was whistled for a tripping penalty to put the Stars on the power play, and Loui Eriksson nearly connected with a close-in chance at 15:05, but Columbus goaltender Curtis Sanford made the stop.
Dallas nearly got another one with 2:25 remaining in regulation when Michael Ryder found a loose puck in front and jammed it past Sanford, but it pinged off the left post and wide.
The Blue Jackets pulled Sanford for an extra attacker with 1:15 on the clock, and Lehtonen was called upon to make a strong save with 55 seconds to go on Carter’s blast from the slot.
Despite intense pressure from Columbus over the final seconds, the Stars managed to clear their zone and then Benn even tacked on an empty netter from center ice with 0.9 seconds on the clock to clinch it.
After getting outscored 3-0 in the first period of their previous three games, the Stars got off to a quick start in this one, bolting out of the chutes by striking twice within the first 4:21 to take an early 2-0 lead.
Benn started things off just 1:35 into the opening period with his 16th goal of the season. After Robidas’ bouncing shot from the right point was blocked in front, Benn retrieved the loose puck in the slot and in one motion, spun and fired a laser beam of a wrist shot over Sanford’s glove just under the crossbar.
The Stars nearly made it 2-0 at 3:24 when Robidas fed a nice cross-ice pass to Ryder for a one-timer low in the left face-off circle, but Sanford made a spectacular sliding pad save.
Dallas did extend the lead to two a minute later when Goligoski notched his seventh of the year by driving the net. On a 3-on-2 rush into the Columbus zone, Tomas Vincour fired a high wrist shot from the high slot that hit Blue Jackets defenseman Marc Methot in the face. As Methot collapsed in writing pain, the puck bounced down in the crease and Goligoski was there to pop it home before Sanford could react.
Methot did not return.
“It was a big start, getting those two goals was huge,” said Benn. “And getting some momentum for our team on the road was big and we definitely wanted that in the first period.”
“When you’re in the situation we’ve been in, we haven’t scored very many,” Gulutzan said. “Other than the Anaheim game when we scored six, we haven’t scored more than two over that period and to get two right away is a confidence-boost for the group.”
Lehtonen kept the Stars up by two when he bailed out Sheldon Souray, who lost the puck in his own zone, leading to an uncontested, point-blank shot by Derek MacKenzie at 9:23.
Carter nearly got one for Columbus with 2:05 remaining in the period when he fired a one-timer from the slot, but Lehtonen made a nice sliding skate save.
Leading 2-0 on the scoreboard and outshooting the Blue Jackets 15-10 heading into the second period, the Stars struck early again as Robidas connected for his fourth goal of the season. Coming just four seconds after a power play ended, the Stars still controlled the puck in the Columbus zone and Ribeiro fed a pass back from the right circle to the right point, where Robidas blasted a one-timer that whizzed past Eriksson’s screen in front and over Sanford’s blocker shoulder.
Infused with momentum, the Stars nearly got another one just 25 seconds later when Benn ripped a one-timer from the right circle, but Sanford made a nice kick save.
That momentum didn’t last and shifted the other way following a series of Columbus power plays.
Columbus cut the lead to 3-1 at 8:32 on Vinny Prospal’s 10th goal of the season. With Souray feeling shame in the penalty box for a very questionable roughing penalty, the Stars had a chance to clear the zone, but Steve Ott tossed the puck across the zone instead, leading to more sustained Columbus pressure. Seconds later, Fedor Tyutin fed a shot/pass from the top of the left circle in front to Prospal, who niftily re-directed it on the backhand over Lehtonen’s shoulder, off the right post and in.
On the next power play, thanks for Vernon Fiddler’s hooking penalty, the Blue Jackets had a close call at 10:16 when Derek Dorsett’s in-close deflection was stopped by Lehtonen and then Carter pushed the loose rebound just off the far post and wide.
The Blue Jackets pulled to within 3-2 on the third power play (this one due to Philip Larsen’s holding the stick infraction) at 12:12, when captain Rick Nash scored his 18th of the season, and 13th in his last 20 games against Dallas. Nash started the play by slipping a pass from the left point over to Tyutin in the right circle before heading down low in the left circle, where he received a nice cross-ice return pass from Tyutin and fired a wrister over the diving Lehtonen.
“If you keep turning the puck over, you’re just feeding their transition game,” Robidas said. “If a team’s going to beat you, have them beat you the right way because they create their own chances and play well. I’m not saying they didn’t play well, but we kind of fed them in that regard. We can’t beat ourselves, just play a strong, simple game. It’s just a mindset.”
The Stars jump right back on their plane to travel to Buffalo to face the Sabres Friday night (6:30 pm start, FSSW Plus) to conclude their two-game mini road trip with their third contest in four nights. It will be their 10th attempt at winning the second leg of a back-to-back situation, having gone a woeful 0-8-1 and getting outscored 36-14 so far in that scenario this season.
“You have to get on a roll, 1-1 (on the trip) isn’t going to cut it,” said Gulutzan, who revealed that backup netminder Richard Bachman would be start in Buffalo. “You can look at the standings and figure out your points and it’s not going to cut it, so we have to start stringing things back-to-back. Tomorrow’s a good start. You’re not going to stay on zero forever and hopefully tomorrow we’ll put a one in that column.”
- Benn now has six points (four goals, two assists) in five games since he returned from his first appearance in the All-Star Game. His five shots on goal tied Ryder for the team lead.
- Goligoski’s two-point night gives him seven points (two goals, five assists) in his last seven contests.
- With his first multi-point night since Nov. 4, Robidas now has six points (two goals, four assists) in the last nine games, following a span in which he recorded just one assist in his previous 11 outings. He led the Stars in ice time, logging 23:24.
- Ribeiro’s two-assist evening leaves him with five points (one goal, four assists) in the last six games since he sat out seven contests with a knee injury, and nine points (five goals, four assists) in his last eight games played.
- Vincour’s assist on Goligoski’s goal was his first point since Dec. 10, although that reflects a span of just eight NHL games.
- Ott earned an assist on Benn’s first goal and now has five points (one goal, four assists) in the last five games after going pointless in the previous seven outings. He was also a game-high +3.
- The Stars lost the special teams battle significantly. Their power play unit went 0-for-3 against the Blue Jackets’ 30th-ranked penalty killing unit, while Columbus was 2-for-3 on its man-advantage opportunities.
- Columbus out-hit the Stars by a stunning 34-12 margin, led by Colton Gillies’ 10 hits. Fiddler topped the Stars with three.
- Dallas is now a stellar 15-4-3 all-time against the Blue Jackets in Columbus, the club’s best road record against any Western Conference opponent.
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