DALLAS – This would have been the perfect game for the Dallas Stars to break out of the back-to-back bugaboo that has plagued them all season, but it was not to be.
Less than 21 hours after a gut-wrenching loss in Phoenix, followed by a late-night flight home, the Stars had to pick themselves up off the mat Sunday evening and get back to work.
Unfortunately, following a strong start, the Stars were knocked back down again, eventually succumbing to the Nashville Predators 3-2 at the American Airlines Center, and remain winless in the second leg of back-to-back sets, falling to 0-9-2 in those situations.
The defeat leaves the Stars 1-3-1 in their last five and 2-4-2 in their last eight contests overall, leaving them stuck in 10th place in the Western Conference standings with 62 points, missing a chance to move to within one point of Calgary for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Dallas is also 3-5-1 in the last nine contests at home.
“We just have to give a little more. We’re close but close is not good enough,” said veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas. “We need results and we just got to find a way to do little things right.”
“We got to get some kind of consistency with winning and I think that point is probably right now,” added Alex Goligoski, whose goal with 4:49 left in the third period pulled Dallas to within one. “You say it’s the Phoenix game, and after that game, you say, maybe it’s this one, but it’s probably right now. Your desperation has to be as high as it’s going to get.”
Missing top offensive threat Jamie Benn for the second straight contest and captain Brenden Morrow for the ninth consecutive game due to injuries, the Stars found little solace that they’ve played pretty well the last several games, because they’ve still come up short and need points to keep pace in the playoff race.
“If you’re going to let that bother you, you’re going to be sunk, so you’ve got to keep moving,” said coach Glen Gulutzan. “As hard as it is to swallow, you’ve got to keep doing things right. The moment you veer away and start losing confidence, you’re in trouble. We’re doing the little things right, we’re not getting the result.”
As for the issue of losing the second half of back-to-backs, the Stars, who are now the only team in the NHL winless in that scenario, are frustrated and unhappy with the impact that has had on their season.
“I don’t know, it’s frustrating for sure. It’s something I can’t really explain why,” said Robidas. “It’s no excuse, it’s something that’s a reality in the NHL. Every team goes back-to-back and you’ve got to be able to win some of those games and we haven’t been able so far this year. If you look at our record, if we win half of those games or just maybe three - three games is six points and that puts us in a playoff spot.”
“We just have to play better,” added goaltender Kari Lehtonen. “Hopefully, next year, we get a better schedule with no back-to-back games. That might help, too, but I don’t think that’s possible.”
Making his ninth start in a row in the Dallas crease, Lehtonen was solid again, making 18 saves.
“Our goalie was good,” Gulutzan said. “Kari is battling to get us into a playoff spot and he’s hungry. He’ll play if we tell him to and he always wants to play, so we’re going to use him. He’s given us a chance in every game since the All-Star Break.”
The deciding moment of the game likely came late in the first period with the contest tied 1-1. A high-sticking penalty to rookie Philip Larsen with 51 seconds remaining gave the Predators their first power play and a Dallas turnover led to a devastating goal against just an instant before the buzzer that ended the first period.
Following a face-off in their own zone with 11 seconds left that Adam Burish won against Nashville’s Sergei Kostitsyn, the Stars were unable to clear the zone and turned the puck over. It wound up on the stick of Ryan Suter at the right point, and Lehtonen made a nice blocker save through a screen his slap shot, but the rebound bounced right to Shea Weber all alone to the left of the crease, and Weber drilled it through Lehtonen just as the clock ticked down to 0.2 seconds remaining.
The officials on the ice declared it a goal and that was upheld by video review, that the puck crossed the line literally an instant before the buzzer. By the time it hit the back of the net, the clock was at 0.0, but it was over the line just in time. It was that close.
“We make a mental error with 11 seconds left, and I can explain to anyone, we did not know what our escape route was off that face-off,” Gulutzan said. “We won it clean and couldn’t get it out. And that’s a mistake that can’t happen. It just can’t happen.”
The Stars came out strong in the second period and generated a couple of good chances early. First, 1:14 in, Mike Ribeiro fed a pass from the right circle in front for a nice deflection by Michael Ryder, but the puck slid just wide of the left post.
Ribeiro had another prime opportunity 15 seconds later, when he camped in front and got his stick on Trevor Daley’s wrist shot from the right point, but Rinne came up with a nice save on the deflection.
“We were mad about it,” Gulutzan said of the Weber goal. “The guys were focused, they came out hard in the second, we pushed and pushed, but they’re a good defensive club and we don’t score easy, and we just couldn’t get one by him.”
The Predators appeared to take a 3-1 lead at 9:52 when Matt Halischuk deflected one behind Lehtonen, but it was waved off after a video review. Weber’s snap shot from the right point was initially deflected in front by Gabriel Bourque, and as the puck bounced up and over Lehtonen’s shoulder, Halischuk cruised through the crease behind him and bunted it in waist-high. But upon closer review, the puck went off Halischuk’s glove, and according to NHL rule 67.6, that nullifies any goal scored.
Nashville did get that two-goal lead eventually, on an incredible individual effort by Colin Wilson, who connected for his 12th goal at 16:05. After collecting the puck in the left corner, Wilson somehow evaded three Stars’ attempts to knock the puck off his stick, escaping Daley, Mark Fistric and Tom Wandell to cut into the slot, where he lifted a lethal backhander over Lehtonen’s glove.
The Predators nearly made it 4-1 with 2:12 left in the second while on a power play, when Kostitsyn fed a pass from the right circle into the crease, where Brandon Yip deflected it behind Lehtonen, but the puck slid just wide of the right post.
Behind 3-1 heading into the final period, the Stars got a boost from their fourth line, which generated their best scoring chances through the first half of the period.
Rookie Ryan Garbutt, playing just his second NHL game after making his debut in Phoenix the night before, set up a prime opportunity at 2:38 when he charged into the Nashville zone down the left sideboards and fired a pass to the top of the crease, where Tomas Vincour re-directed it on net, but Rinne made a huge save. Jake Dowell took a hack at the loose rebound in the crease, but the puck disappeared under Rinne, who smothered it.
The fourth line nearly got one on their next shift, when Vincour’s wrist shot from the right circle was turned aside by Rinne at 6:05. The rebound bounced over to the left side of the crease, where Garbutt drilled a sharp-angle one-timer that whizzed past Rinne’s head and clanked off the right post.
“I thought he’s given us some speed and energy on that fourth line,” Gulutzan said of Garbutt.
Goligoski’s eighth of the season at 15:11 brought the Stars back within one, as he capitalized on a rare mistake by Rinne. After retrieving a dump-in behind his net, Rinne fired the puck up the left sideboards, but Goligoski intercepted it and just as Rinne got back into the crease, fired a wrist shot that squeezed between Rinne and the left post.
A Hal Gill tripping penalty on Ryder at 2:05 gave the Stars a golden opportunity to tie it up on a power play, but they were unable to cash in, even after pulling Lehtonen for an extra attacker with 1:25 to go.
Their best chance came with 17 seconds left when Rinne stopped Ryder’s wrist shot from the left circle, then watched as Ribeiro’s rebound chance from the slot just missed the right goalpost wide.
“We get the power play with two minutes left, it was our first one, got a couple of looks,” Goligoski said. “At that point, they were just packing them in, just trying to find lanes and get shots through, had a couple of opportunities, just couldn’t get one in.”
“We stuck to it right to the end, too bad we couldn’t capitalize on that power play,” Gulutzan said.
Lehtonen came up big early, on what appeared to be Nashville’s first real foray into the Stars’ zone, first stopping David Legwand’s wrist shot off the rush from the high slot 5:11 into the opening period. The rebound spit out into the low left circle, where Halischuk got to it for a quick wrist shot that slithered through Lehtonen and sat tantalizingly in the crease for a moment before it was cleared out. Seconds later, during the same scrambly pressure, Lehtonen’s blocker stop on Legwand’s fluttering wrist shot was also impressive.
Dallas then got the early goal they were seeking shortly afterwards, as Ryder notched his sixth goal in the last 11 games and team-leading 23rd of the year at 6:49. Ribeiro set up the play as he curled out from behind the net past the right post with Predator defender Kevin Klein all over him, managed to slip a short pass in front to Ryder, who popped a quick snap shot past Rinne just inside the left post.
The Predators evened it up at 15:39 on Bourque’s third goal of the year. Halischuk started the play by chasing down a loose puck in the right corner and firing a pass across the slot that didn’t connect, but as Lehtonen slid across the crease to contend with Legwand retrieving it off the left sideboards, he lost his stick, and as Legwand’s wrister arrived, Bourque (no relation to the former Boston and Colorado star) executed a nifty deflection in front between Lehtonen’s pads and in.
The Stars continue their crazy stretch of playing 11 consecutive games in a different building by jetting out again to Montreal Tuesday night (6:30 pm start, FSSW). Currently 13th in the East, the Canadiens are battling for a playoff spot themselves, sitting six points back of the eighth spot after losing on home ice earlier Sunday.
“We just got to go out there and do our job,” Robidas said. “Everybody’s got to be on top of their game and do the little things right. I think if you look at the way Nashville plays, they don’t beat themselves, they do the little things right.”
- Ryder’s goal extended his scoring streak to six games, a span in which he’s totaled six points (four goals, two assists). He led the Stars with a game-high five shots on goal.
- With his assist on Ryder’s goal, Ribeiro now has seven points (one goal, six assists) in the last seven games. He also extended his scoring streak against Nashville to five games, having accumulated eight points (three goals, five assists) in his last five contests against the Predators. Ribeiro also actually led the Stars in ice time, logging 23:04.
- Also earning an assist on Ryder’s goal was Eriksson, who now has six points (one goal, fiver assists) in the last six games, following a five-game point drought. Eriksson also owns a scoring streak against the Predators, now standing at six games, during which he’s amassed 10 points (three goals, seven assists).
- Goligoski snapped a three-game point drought, but still has 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in his last 13 outings.
- The Stars out-hit Nashville 38-24 for the night, with Garbutt and defenseman Mark Fistric sharing the team lead with five hits each.
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