DALLAS – They say that when the stakes are highest, the elite players rise to the occasion, and for the Dallas Stars, it appears that goaltender Kari Lehtonen is moving into that neighborhood.
In a game the Stars absolutely needed as they continue their chase for their first playoff appearance since 2008, Lehtonen was outstanding in making 35 saves, including 29 over the final two periods, to help lead his club to a crucial 4-1 victory Saturday afternoon at the American Airlines Center.
After having lost three of their previous four contests, and facing a team immediately below them in the standings, the value of this win, and Lehtonen’s impact on it, cannot be understated.
“That was fun,” said Lehtonen, who improved his season record to 31-17-4 and even picked up an assist. “I didn’t feel like I’ve been at my best the last three games, so it was nice to be able to help out and get some good saves. It’s great to get two points. These are some important games. We just have to keep going. We can be happy about this today and start focusing tomorrow on another big one coming up.”
“I think you have great goalies and you have elite goalies and why we’re saying Kari’s elite is because his level of play is rising in important games,” added Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “They threw a lot of bodies at him and there’s going to be more, but he’s a big guy, he fights through it. He looked like he was in the zone, catching pucks with guys in front of him, giving our team a lot of confidence. You see a different level coming out of Kari right now, it’s a great thing.”
The triumph pushes the Stars to 87 points on the year, moving them up from the eighth slot over Phoenix (who has 86) into the Pacific Division lead and the third seed that accompanies it.
The 11th-place Flames, meanwhile, could have pulled into a tie with Dallas with a victory, but instead remain at 83 points and have now lost five straight (0-2-3).
“It was a big two points, good to get a nice win on an emotional night,” said Stars center Jamie Benn, who scored two goals. “I thought we had a strong start and our goalie played great once again.”
The afternoon started off on an emotional note, as the Stars honored former Dallas defenseman Karlis Skrastins, who was killed in the tragic plane crash in Russia back in September that claimed the entire Lokomotiv KHL club, with a nice video shown on the center-ice scoreboard.
With Skrastins’ wife Zane and three daughters, including one-month-old Viviana, on the ice, Stars captain Brenden Morrow and alternates Steve Ott and Stephane Robidas presented them each with flower bouquets. It was announced that the club’s players were generously donating money to a college fund for each of the kids that will be matched by Dallas owner Tom Gaglardi.
Then Skrastins’ daughters Karolina and Laurena dropped the ceremonial first pucks.
“I think there was a lot of teary eyes there on the bench, including myself, and when you see those young girls, and having kids, it’s not an easy thing,” said Gulutzan of the pre-game ceremony. “When you deal with an individual like that, you just wish the best for that young mom. But I think the guys knew how Scratch played the game and they channeled that emotion in the right way.”
The Stars did exactly that, getting off to the fast start they were looking for, as Benn gave them a 1-0 lead just 1:37 into the opening period. Adam Burish fed a short pass behind the net to Benn, who skated from the left corner and then swept out the right side of the net for a quick wraparound that managed to squeeze underneath Kiprusoff.
“It was huge,” Benn said of taking that early lead. “That’s something we want to do, we want to see if teams are ready. I think we learned our lesson against Chicago when they came out and gave it to us there in the first couple of minutes. That’s what we want to do to teams.”
Calgary almost answered at 3:04 when Blake Comeau unleashed a blazing wrist shot from the high slot that beat Lehtonen past the blocker, but clanked off the left goalpost.
The Stars surged ahead by two on Ryder’s team-leading 33rd goal of the year at 7:17. After Mike Ribeiro weaved his way through several Flames into the zone and set up at the right half-wall, he fed Ryder as he skated into the right face-off circle and fired a quick wrist shot that beat Kiprusoff past the blocker and settled just inside the left post.
The Flames got one back at 12:27 on Mike Cammalleri’s 16th goal. After Radek Dvorak lost his stick in the Dallas zone and the Stars had at least one failed attempt to clear their own end, Calgary applied sustained pressure and eventually capitalized when Anton Babchuk slid a nifty cross-ice pass from the left circle over to the right circle, where Cammalleri drilled a one-timer just past the sliding Lehtonen’s glove.
“That was hard, but it was also very nice. It was nice to see his family,” said Lehtonen. “It was pretty emotional there, it was tough to start playing right away, but the guys came out flying and got two goals, that was nice. (The Flames) were able to get that goal and it was tight all the way ‘til the end. It was exciting hockey, lot of fighting and all that. It was fun.”
Calgary carried the majority of the play in the second period, outshooting Dallas 14-6, but could not get one past Lehtonen, with the Finnish netminder making nice saves on Chris Butler’s snap shot at 17:15 and taking one off his mask from Olli Jokinen with 12 seconds left in the period.
Following that save on Jokinen, there was a major post-whistle scrum, with several near-fights breaking out, including standoffs between Ribeiro and Mark Giordano, which ended when Eric Nystrom charged in and tackled Giordano to the ice, and between Sheldon Souray and Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
“We’re fighting out there, we’re doing everything we can to win the hockey game,” Benn said of all heightened level of rough stuff lately. “Emotions are running high and we’re going to get a little chippy sometimes. Our team loves it, we got too many guys who never shut up, so we like it.”
Calgary ended up on the power play after that, with 1:50 of it carrying over to the third period, but the Stars’ stellar penalty killing unit killed it off. They had some help from a big save by Lehtonen at 1:27 on a point-blank chance in front by Matt Stajan.
The Flames maintained the momentum, though, and continued to swarm the Stars’ zone, forcing Lehtonen to make several more key saves early. He made a nice stop on Clay Wilson’s wrist shot from the left circle at 4:31, then robbed Cammalleri on the subsequent rebound when he kicked out his pad to block Cammalleri’s backhand.
Calgary continued to press, outshooting the Stars 10-1 over the first eight-plus minutes of the period,
When Burish was whistled for a very questionable roughing penalty at 12:12, the Flames’ power play went to work, but were unable to perforate the Dallas penalty kill.
“We had to kill that penalty right at the start, that I wasn’t a fan of that going against us,” said Gulutzan. “I think we saw a focused Calgary team that came at us at the start, but we got the kill and weathered some stuff there.”
Following that kill, with the raucous crowd of 17,238 cheering wildly, there were five minutes remaining and the Stars were being outshot 14-3 in the period, but they had seized back some of the momentum and finally began to apply a little pressure of their own.
That push paid off when Benn notched his second of the day and career-high 24th of the season with 3:33 left in regulation to make it 3-1. After Ott retrieved a loose puck in the left corner, he quickly whipped a pass out front to a wide open Benn, who entombed a one-timer almost before Kiprusoff could react.
Then, with the Flames pressing for more offense, they pulled Kiprusoff for an extra attacker, but it backfired as Morrow tapped in an empty netter from the edge of the crease with 1:28 on the clock.
It was a nice end to the game for Morrow, who saw his ice time reduced to 10:14 from his season average of 17:38 as Gulutzan made the decision to drop him down to the fourth line, next to Tom Wandell and Tomas Vincour while Burish moved up to his spot on the second line with Benn and Ott.
“We just wanted to spread things out a little bit, looking for more ice from a couple of guys,” Gulutzan said. “I think certainly, Brenden has to do a lot to get game-ready and probably the right thing to do is to scale his minutes back, just because of what he has to put himself through just to be game-ready. I talked to our captain a couple of days ago about it and he agreed. That’s why he’s our captain, what a profession guy to deal with, and I think 10-12 minutes, while he’s getting fully healthy, is probably the right message. He’s one of our best net-presence guys, and he’s a big voice in our room about how we want to be and how we want to conduct ourselves. I have a lot of respect for Brenden Morrow, he wants to win.”
The Stars get another dose of the Flames on Monday night, as both clubs travel up to Alberta to do battle again (8 pm start, FSSW), in what promises to be another crucial matchup full of playoff race implications.
“Quick turnaround, we’ll get them again there in Calgary with another big two points on the line,” Benn noted. “I think the emotions and the playoff atmosphere is going to carry over. There are two big points on the line and both teams are pushing for a playoff spot, I think it’s going to be a hard-fought game and we’re looking forward to it.”
- Benn’s multi-goal game follows a stretch in which he earned just one goal in the last four games following a stretch in which he’d accumulated five points (three goals, two assists) in the previous four. Benn also led the club in shots on goal, with four.
- Ryder now has three goals and one assist over the last three games.
- Morrow’s empty netter snapped a four-game point drought.
- Ribeiro’s assist on Ryder’s goal leaves him with four points (all assists) over the last three contests.
- With an assist on Benn’s goal, Burish snapped a six-game point drought.
- Lehtonen’s assist marked the second straight contest he’s wound up on the offensive side of the scoresheet, and his third assist of the season.
- Dallas went 33-19 on face-offs for the day, with Burish leading the way at 9-1.
- The Stars killed off all four Calgary power plays, leaving them a stellar 41-for-43 over the last 13 games on the PK, a streak that has moved them up to ninth.
- Rookie forward Tomas Vincour was back in the lineup after sitting out the last two contests as a healthy scratch.