NASHVILLE – Do or die. Backs against the wall. Carpe Diem. Regardless of your preferred cliché, that was the situation the Dallas Stars faced Thursday night.
With their season hanging in the balance, the Stars played a strong road game, taking a scoreless game into the third period against the notoriously stingy Nashville Predators, but in the end, it was the other guys that got the big goal when they needed it and Dallas succumbed 2-0 at the Bridgestone Arena.
The loss was the Stars’ fourth in a row, by a combined margin of 15-4, and after fashioning a disappointing 3-8-0 record in their last 11 contests, the club is now officially eliminated from the Western Conference playoff race with one game to go.
Needless to say, as the reality set in that the Stars had missed the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth consecutive season, it was a bitter pill for them to swallow.
“It’s frustrating, disappointing, kind of a repeat Groundhog Day of last year,” said Stars captain Brenden Morrow. “It doesn’t get any easier, you always want to win that last one and give our fans the opportunity to see playoff hockey again. They deserve it, since Mr. Gaglardi took over (as owner in November), they’ve been out to support us and root us on and it would have been nice to give them that opportunity to see some playoff hockey.”
“It’s tough because obviously we’re out and it’s never fun again,” added forward Steve Ott. “It’s the worst feeling for a professional hockey player.”
Goaltender Kari Lehtonen, back in the crease for his 10th consecutive start, delivered yet another solid effort, making 28 saves, but wound up surrendering third period goals to Francis Bouillon and Patric Hornqvist.
“By far, he’s been our team MVP. If we didn’t have Kari Lehtonen, we wouldn’t even have a chance,” Ott said of his netminder. “He probably would have made all the critics right about us being the 16th-place team. If it wasn’t for Kari Lehtonen, we wouldn’t have a chance at making the playoffs.”
At the other end, the Stars could not get anything past Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne, who made 28 stops for his fifth shutout of the year.
“I thought it was a good hockey game, we just didn’t get the result we wanted, but we played hard,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “I liked the way we competed. It was one-goal game, really, who could get that one in, and they managed to do so.”
“They found a way to score two goals on us there, they found a way to win,” Ott said. “They’re a team that’s heading towards the playoffs, they play a tight, tight game. We found a way to lose the game instead of finding a way to score and winning the game.”
It was the second time in three games that the Stars were shut out, and the seventh occasion this season overall, despite Gulutzan’s decision to shuffle the make-up of the forward lines in an effort to jump-start the offense.
Entering the final period still scoreless, the Predators came out swarming and had a golden opportunity 2:41 in when Kevin Klein boomed a one-timer from the high slot that forced Lehtonen to make a big shoulder save.
Nashville snapped the tie at 4:28 on Bouillon’s fourth goal of the season. Hornqvist set up the play by carrying the puck behind the Dallas net, circling out for a wrap-around at the left goalpost. Lehtonen made a pad save, but the rebound spit out front, and Bouillon found it among multiple legs and backhanded it past him for the 1-0 lead.
“They put the puck to our net, kind of jammed it, got a bounce and put one in,” Gulutzan said of the goal. “We tried that and had chances similar, but just couldn’t get one to jump in there.”
The Predators continued to press, but Lehtonen came up with a nice stop on Klein’s one-timer from the right circle at 7:07.
Lehtonen made another big save at 9:39 when Hornqvist rifled a nasty wrist shot from the high lost that Lehtonen denied with his shoulder.
The Stars had a power play opportunity after that, but were unable to capitalize, with their best chance coming at 11:42 when Mike Ribeiro made a slick move to work his way from the right face-off circle through a couple Predators to the lip of the crease, where he was knocked over before he could tuck it past Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne.
The pace picked up considerably following the Nashville penalty kill, with the Predators racing into the Dallas zone on a 4-on-2 rush but fired a wrist shot over the net at 12:15.
Moments later, the Stars sped back the other way on a 4-on-2 rush of their own, with Michael Ryder feeding a cross-ice pass to Loui Eriksson on the left side of the crease, and Eriksson fed it back across the crease to a wide open Stephane Robidas at the left post, but Robidas was in a bit too deep and was unable to get a shot off.
The Stars managed to kill off a Predators power play and entered the final five minutes of regulation still within one.
Defenseman Philip Larsen drilled a one-timer from the left point at 15:51 that forced Rinne to make a strong pad save.
With the Stars pressing offensively, the Predators raced back on the counter-attack, on a 3-on-1 rush. Alexander Radulov carried it into the left circle before firing a wrist shot, and Lehtonen came up with the stop at 16:48.
Nashville then put the final nail in the Stars’ coffin with exactly two minutes remaining in regulation when Hornqvist notched his 26th goal of the season. Martin Erat fired a somewhat harmless-looking wrist shot from the high slot that Lehtonen stopped, but the rebound bounced off him and past both Robidas and defense partner Sheldon Souray as Hornqvist barged into the slot and swatted the bouncing puck over Lehtonen’s glove.
“We were just looking for that tie and they got that second one,” Morrow said. “We probably just pressed a little bit and when you’re down a goal, that’s going to happen.”
The Stars kept battling to the end, pulling Lehtonen for an extra attacker with 1:52 to go, and even got a 6-on-4 advantage when Mike Fisher was whistled for delay of game for shooting the puck into the crowd from his own end at 19:05.
Multiple set-ups for Souray and his cannon of a slap shot did not produce the goal they were looking for, and the Stars ultimately fell short.
The Predators had the contest’s first prime scoring chance when Klein fed a pass from the right point over to a wide open Bouillon in the left circle at 17:15 of the first period. Bouillon cut in front and got off a point-blank backhander that Lehtonen made a nice pad save on.
Nashville wound up with the slight 9-8 edge in first period shots, but neither team was able to find the back of the net.
The Stars nearly snapped the scoreless tie just 1:52 into the second period when Ribeiro weaved his way through several Predators into the slot for a wrist shot, but Rinne got enough of his pad on it to deflect it wide of the left post.
Lehtonen preserved the goose eggs at 7:20 with back-to-back big saves on Andrei Kostitsyn’s uncontested wrist shot from the right circle and then on Klein’s slap shot through a screen seconds later.
Trevor Daley, who appeared to be flying all over the ice all night, came oh-so-close at 15:11 when he carried the puck into the Nashville zone and fired a wrist shot from the right circle that burrowed its way through Rinne and trickled behind him, nudging off the right post before Rinne smothered it.
“When the opportunity presents itself to jump up, I’m all for that,” said Daley, who generated three shots on goal, tied for the club lead. “A couple of times I’ve had the opportunity and got a little bit out of it, but not quite enough.”
Even though it has lost some of its luster, the Stars do have one more game to play, returning home to face St. Louis in Game 82 on Saturday night (7:00 pm start, TXA-21). The Blues, led by former Stars Stanley Cup-winning coach Ken Hitchcock, are currently second in the Western Conference, two points behind Vancouver, and could be playing for first, as well as for the President’s Trophy.
- Dallas played the second half of the game with just five defensemen after Mark Fistric left with a groin injury. Despite only playing 9:33 of ice time, Fistric still finished with a game-high four hits. His status for Saturday’s finale is unknown at this point.
- The Stars have now been outscored 6-1 in the third periods of their last four games.
- Some key numbers - the Predators blocked 23 shots while the Stars blocked 10.
- The Dallas power play was 0-for-4, including two in the third period, leaving the man-advantage unit a dreadful 1-for-25 over the last eight games, a stretch that dropped the PP unit’s efficiency rating to dead last in the NHL.
- Third-line winger Radek Dvorak returned to the lineup after missing the previous five games with a lower body injury, while fourth-line center Tom Wandell was back after sitting out five in a row due to illness.