ST. PAUL – With the wins and confidence piling up, nothing unnerves the Dallas Stars nowadays. Against a Minnesota Wild team that preferred to play rope-a-dope, the Stars kept punching away to secure yet another victory.
Kari Lehtonen made 25 saves for his second straight shutout and fourth of the season, and Jamie Benn snapped a scoreless tie with an early third-period goal to lift Dallas to its season-high sixth straight win, 1-0, over the Wild on Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center.
The surging Stars (39-26-5) improved to 10-0-1 over their last 11 games -- the first time they’ve secured points in 11 straight contests since putting together a 12-game point streak that bridged December 2002 and January 2003 -- and pushed their Pacific Division lead to four points.
“I think we played really solid, especially 5-on-5,” Lehtonen said. “They got a couple of good chances on the power play, but it was good to get the win, and just enough goals for us. We keep playing simple and hard …don’t try to do too much, that’s the bottom line. We’ve been able to eliminate the big mistakes, and we have enough skill to get a couple of goals and try to play really tight defense. That’s been working.”
Although the scoreboard had small numbers on it, there were several quality scoring chances that Minnesota generated, but Lehtonen was able to gracefully steer them away from harm’s way. From slick glove saves to kicking out pucks with his pads, Lehtonen foiled the Wild in a game that could have turned on one bad move in the crease.
Instead, Lehtonen extended his shutout streak to 128 minutes, 32 seconds in sealing his 21st career shutout and 29th win of the season.
“Just the last month he’s brought his game to a new level,” coach Glen Gulutzan said of his netminder. “Yeah he had the shutout, but just how clean he was and the rebound control was the most impressive part to me. He’s given our guys the belief that he’s not going to let any in, and he hasn’t for a couple of games.”
Lehtonen preserved the shutout when he corralled Kyle Brodziak’s point-blank shot from the slot with 3.2 seconds left in regulation, and he became the first Dallas goalie to post consecutive blankings since Marty Turco did so in December 2006 against San Jose and Phoenix.
“He stops every puck pretty much,” Benn said. “The guy’s a workhorse, and he’s unbelievable back there. Once again he showed it.”
Benn broke through for the winner 3:46 into the third with his 21st of the year, giving Lehtonen the only goal he needed. Off the rush, Brenden Morrow’s cross-ice pass from the right wing went off Stephane Veilleux’s stick right to Benn on the left wing, and Benn calmly lifted the puck over Matt Hackett for the first goal of the game.
“It deflected off something there, so I just tried to get it to the net as fast as I could,” Benn said. “It came off my stick pretty hot there.”
Hackett, making his second straight start, finished with 24 saves for the Wild (29-31-10), who are just 1-6-1 over their last eight games.
“That’s what you have to do, stay patient,” Benn said. “We know the game is 60 minutes, and if it takes 59 or 58 minutes (to score) then it does. You have to just keep sticking to the game plan, and that’s what we did. In the end we got two points. We’re not trying to make it pretty out there, we’re just trying to keep it ugly and play a simple game. ”
After a listless first period by both teams, things started picking up a bit in the middle frame. Both clubs began to press offensively, but both Lehtonen and Hackett were able to keep the game scoreless.
Lehtonen made perhaps the best save of the second on back-to-back chances by Erik Christensen and Brodziak. From the right circle, Christensen snapped a shot off that Lehtonen blocked, then Brodziak was denied by Lehtonen’s pad when he tried jamming home the rebound.
Hackett’s best saves in the second came against Loui Eriksson and Michael Ryder. Eriksson went driving to the net with the puck but had his backhand blocked before Ryder’s quick snap shot was turned aside by Hackett. A scramble for the rebound ensued after the Ryder save, but Hackett was able to fall on the loose puck before Benn could come in to shovel it in.
Hackett also robbed Mike Ribeiro’s chance from the right circle on the power play in the second when he slid to his left and did a windmill with his left arm to snuff out the opportunity.
“There’s no breaks,” Gulutzan said. “If you take your foot off the gas, someone’s gonna pass you. So we need to just go game by game and collect points. That’s what this stretch drive is all about. We prepared for a game like this, and we knew we were in for a hard-fought, defensive battle.”
The Stars are right back at it on Wednesday when they travel to Winnipeg to take on the Jets (7:30 p.m., FS-SW). The Jets boast the third-best home record in the Eastern Conference (21-10-4), and were four points out of the final playoff slot in the East entering Tuesday.
-- The Stars won three of the four games of the season series with the Wild. They also won for the first time in Minnesota since a 4-0 victory in January 2011.
-- With the two points, the Stars are now guaranteed to finish with a record above .500. It’s the 15th consecutive season they’ve been above the break-even line, with only the Detroit Red Wings possessing a longer streak (20 seasons).
-- With the win, Joe Nieuwendyk became only the 32nd general manager in NHL history to guide his team to a winning season in his first three full seasons at the helm.
-- Ryder had his career-high nine-game points streak snapped.
-- Morrow has points in both of his games since returning from an injury, and Benn has points in six of his last seven games, including four straight.
-- The Stars are 8-2-2 in their last 12 road games, and 19-14-2 overall away from home this season.