DALLAS – This is what Dallas Stars fans have been waiting for all season.
In putting together their third straight outstanding performance, the Stars generated goals from three different forward lines, played solid defense and received 28 saves from goaltender Kari Lehtonen to defeat the Minnesota Wild 4-1 Friday night at the American Airlines Center.
It was another impressive display of a total team effort.
Back home after an inspiring two-game road trip that featured big victories in Montreal and Chicago, the Stars secured a crucial win over another team embroiled in the crowded race for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
In putting together their first three-game winning streak since early December, outscoring opponents 10-2 in the process, the Stars are suddenly 4-1-1 in their last six outings and improve to 68 points in the standings. That allows them to gain sole possession of eighth place, three points back of Phoenix in seventh and two points up on Calgary, Los Angeles and Colorado, who are all tied for ninth.
“We’ve been talking about that for a month now, wanting to get some wins put together and now we’re finally doing it,” said Lehtonen, back in net after backup Richard Bachman played the night before in Chicago. “It’s just an interesting time of the year, with every game so important and we’re having fun, so hopefully, we can keep it going.”
“It’s just nice to get the win at home,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan, whose club had dropped three of its previous four contests on home ice. “We came out and made a few good plays and it’s nice to get the points. It’s game by game here, and it’s going to go that way until April, so we just got to keep approaching things like this and get points. There’s five teams with 64, 65, 66 points. It’s going to be a battle right to the end, I don’t think this thing is going to be decided until the last few days.”
Of major significance is that the Stars finally overcame their most debilitating demon this season, winning on the second night of a back-to-back set, becoming the last NHL team to triumph in that scenario after having gone a dreadful 0-9-2 this year.
“It’s about time we got that one, and it’s a really two big points for us again,” said Loui Eriksson, who scored in both games of the back-to-back. “I thought it was a good game, it was nice to have the lead for once and I thought we protected it pretty good, and Kari played real well for us today, too, so it was a good win.”
For the Wild, who also played the night before, having pulled out a 3-2 shootout triumph in Florida before flying into the Metroplex early Friday morning, they are now 2-6-2 in their last 10 contests, leaving them stuck at 63 points in 12th.
“That was a long time coming, we were due to get it eventually and there’s no excuses tonight,” added winger Eric Nystrom, whose goal early in the second period put Dallas ahead 3-0, of getting the back-to-back monkey off their backs. “They played back-to-back also, and one of their top guys (Mikko Koivu) is out, one of our top guys (Jamie Benn) is out, and we just came in here and head-to-head, just played our game and ended up coming out on top. It’s huge.”
“For me, it didn’t feel like a back-to-back because I got some rest yesterday, I felt fresh,” said Lehtonen, who had started 10 straight games before getting the night off in Chicago. “They played yesterday, too and traveled, so I think it was an even match-up. It was a key two points.”
One important feature of the win was that the Stars continue to receive contributions throughout the lineup, as three different lines collected the goals. In addition to Eriksson and Nystrom scoring, Tom Wandell found the back of the net twice, with the last one going into an empty net in the final minute.
“We need it, we need scoring from all lines and we need it in all different ways,” Gulutzan said, “not just skill plays or getting pucks to the net and bodies to the net, and tonight we got a couple of skill plays and we got to get goals from all guys in all ways. It’s encouraging that, going down the stretch, if you’re getting contributions from everybody, then everybody’s getting more confidence.”
The Stars struck first when Wandell notched his fifth goal of the season 8:48 into the opening period. Wandell barged his way out from behind the Wild net with the puck, curling to the right side of the crease for an in-close wrist shot that starting goalie Niklas Backstrom stopped. But in trying to clear the loose rebound, Minnesota defender Nate Prosser knocked the puck into the lower right circle, right onto Wandell’s stick for a quick snap shot over Backstrom’s glove.
Minnesota nearly tied it up just 42 seconds later, but a quick stick by defenseman Sheldon Souray prevented a goal in a play that could have been the defining moment of the night. Kyle Brodziak fired a wrist shot from the left circle that Setoguchi, standing in front, deflected up and over Lehtonen, but reaching in from the right side of the crease, Souray somehow managed to whack the puck out of mid-air just in front of the goal line back into Lehtonen, who then smothered it.
“That’s the game, you get a break here or there,” said Souray, who tied for the team lead with four shots on goal. “We scrambled a little and I think it deflected in front and it was going over Kari and I just happened to be on the side of the net there and in decent position to try and knock that down. Sometimes it works and sometimes it goes in. Sometimes those slow ones are harder, you can kind of see it happening and you can kind of get frozen.”
Dallas pushed the lead to 2-0 just 23 seconds after killing off their first penalty when Eriksson scored his 20th of the year with 2:20 remaining in the period. Receiving a pass from Michael Ryder out of the right corner, Eriksson cut across the top of the crease, faking both Prosser and Backstrom to the ice before firing a high wrist shot over the flailing Backstrom into an open net.
“Rydes gave me a really good pass there in front and I had some time to do something there, and I just walked on the left side there and put it in,” Eriksson said. “It was a nice goal and I guess it was nice to have the lead in the first and I thought we protected it pretty good.”
The Stars kept up the pressure early in the second period, expanding their lead to three on Nystrom’s 16th goal of the season at 3:53. Radek Dvorak fed a nice backhand pass from behind the Minnesota net out front for Nystrom’s point-blank one-timer that beat Backstrom between the pads.
“Devo made a great pass and I just tried to shoot it quick and when you do that, sometimes you beat the goalie, it snuck through his legs,” Nystrom said.
That prompted Wild coach Mike Yeo to make a goaltending change, pulling Backstrom for rookie Matt Hackett.
Dallas nearly went up by four when the fourth line sped into the Wild zone off the rush at 7:18, as Ryan Garbutt slid a nifty backhand cross-ice pass to a charging Toby Petersen in the slot for a one-timer that Hackett made a nice pad save on.
The Stars lost rookie defenseman Philip Larsen for the night with 2:50 to go in the second when a booming slap shot from the point by Minnesota’s Matt Cullen nailed him in the head during a short-handed situation. Jostling with Nick Johnson in front, Larsen was tied up and appeared to see the puck at the last second, turning so it hit the top of his head on the right side instead of his face. After remaining down for a couple of minutes, he was helped off the ice and didn’t return.
“He’s got a cut on his head there, it cracked his helmet open,” Gulutzan said. “We’ll see how he is tomorrow. He seems okay, but we just want to make sure and see how he is tomorrow. He wasn’t feeling great, so he didn’t come back.”
Midway through the final period, the Stars found themselves in penalty trouble after three consecutive calls against them left the Wild with two different 5-on-3 power plays.
The first two-man advantage, which was for 40 seconds, came due to a bench minor for ‘abuse of officials’ that had Gulutzan upset, especially because it resulted in Setoguchi’s 15th goal of the season at 12:43. Just six seconds before Steve Ott was set to return to the ice after a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Dany Heatley fed a cross-ice pass from the right circle to Setoguchi alone in the left circle for a one-timer entombed into the net before Lehtonen could even react.
“I thought that it was a really weak 5-on-3 call and the explanation we got was not the truth, on the bench minor,” Gulutzan said. “It should never have been a 5-on-3. And I really wish it wasn’t, because (Lehtonen) was going for back-to-back shutouts.”
“We got some, I thought it was some bad calls, but it’s something we have to clean up,” added Eriksson. “They just scored one, but I thought we handled it pretty good after that. It’s always tough to defend a 5-on-3 power play and they made a great play on that, that was tough for Kari to save that one.”
With the Wild still on a 5-on-4 power play, Souray was whistled for cross-checking, putting Minnesota back on the two-man advantage for 16 seconds. This time, the Stars tightened up defensively and didn’t allow a legitimate scoring chance, successfully killing off both penalties without any further incident.
Even after Minnesota pulled Hackett for an extra attacker, they didn’t get much of an opportunity before Wandell deposited a shot from center ice into the empty net with 52.3 seconds left on the clock to seal the victory.
“Every little detail of the game right now seems to be mattering for us,” said Souray, “and we’ve been paying a lot more attention to that, the small little details in our game, and it’s showing up that the end result is the by-product of doing all the little things. Every five or 10 percent a guy can give right now, we need it because we’re in a pretty good battle to get where we want to go.”
After finally completing the nightmarish stretch of 11 games in 11 different buildings compressed into just 18 days with a 5-4-2 record, the Stars actually get to stay in Dallas for the next few days, next taking on the Northwest Division-leading Vancouver Canucks Sunday afternoon (2 pm start, FSSW).
“We know they’re a really good team, so it’s going to be a big game for us again,” Eriksson said of the Stars’ first of four games this year against the Canucks. “We know what we have to do, we have to fight for the points and we know it’s going to be a tough game and we just have to keep going.”
“This has been a tough month for us and guys are a little banged up, but everybody’s paying the price and being mentally tough,” said Nystrom of the difficult schedule. “This is the time of year where teams come together, and you can make gains and where other teams that aren’t as mentally tough are going to slide a little bit. It’s nice to be home.”
- Nystrom’s goal was his first since Feb. 1, snapping a 12-game point drought.
- Eriksson scored for the second straight game and now has eight points (three goals, five assists) in his last nine contests.
- Wandell had his first multi-goal game of the season and now has three in the last three games, following a span in which he recorded just one assist in the previous 13 contests. The Stars are now 14-2-1 since 2008-09 whenever Wandell scores a goal. His four shots on goal tied Souray for the team lead.
- Ryder’s assist leaves him with 10 points (six goals, four assists) in the last 11 contests.
- With an assist on Eriksson’s goal, Ribeiro extended his scoring streak to six games, a stretch in which he’s compiled eight points (two goals, six assists).
- Vernon Fiddler’s assist on Nystrom’s goal represented his first point in 13 outings.
- With his assist on Wandell’s goal, Trevor Daley earned an assist for the third straight contest and has four assists in his last six games, a stretch which followed a 16-game point drought.
- The win was the 1,500th regular season victory in franchise history, as the Stars became the 10th NHL organization to hit that total, including its days as the Minnesota North Stars from 1967-93.
- The third period goal scored by Setoguchi was the first one Dallas had allowed in the final frame in five games. Over that span, the Stars have outscored opponents 6-1 in the third period.
- The Stars have now won an incredible 16 straight home games against Minnesota, dating back to March 21, 2003.
- While the Stars became the NHL’s last remaining team to record a victory in the second half of back-to-back sets, the Wild entered the day with a 4-1-2 mark in those situations.
- Just before game time, it was announced that the Wild had traded veteran defenseman Marek Zidlicky to New Jersey in exchange for defenseman Kurtis Foster, Nick Palmieri, Stephane Veilleux, a second-round draft pick in 2012 and a conditional pick in 2013.
- After killing off 5-of-6 Minnesota power plays, the Dallas PK unit has now successfully nullified 19-of-21 opposing man-advantages over the last six contests.
- Over the same six-game span, the Stars have only enjoyed 10 power plays of their own, including just four over the last four games, in which they’re 0-for-4.
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