DALLAS -- Special teams have been a sore spot for the Nashville Predators during the early stages of the season. However, the Predators got two power-play goals and a game-winner from Matt Cullen with 6:13 remaining in regulation Thursday to earn a 3-2 victory against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center.
“Yeah, we talked about that. We needed to win the special teams battle,” said Predators coach Peter Laviolette, who's 10-3-0 in his career against Dallas. “It was one of the things we marked. It had to go the other way tonight. We had to win the special-teams battle in order to win the game, and we did.”
Cullen beat Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen to the short side as Lehtonen was screened by Trevor Daley, one of his own defensemen, to snap a 2-2 tie. Derek Roy, who had two assists for Nashville, dug the puck out from behind the Dallas net and Cullen finished from the right circle for his first goal of the season.
Pekka Rinne stopped 32 shots for Nashville (8-3-2), which also got two assists from Mattias Ekholm.
“He made some big saves,” Laviolette said of Rinne. “They came out charging. Even when we took the lead, there was a couple saves that were just huge at the end. He had a terrific game, tremendous.”
The Predators, 4-2-1 on the road, built a 2-0 lead on power-play goals from Craig Smith and Filip Forsberg in the second period. Nashville also killed off the Stars' only power play of the night, making Dallas 0-for-14 on the power play in their past four games.
“Our special teams [have] really struggled out of the gates here. Just to have to kill one penalty is huge and we killed it early on and that was important,” said Predators forward Eric Nystrom, who played in his 500th NHL game. “The power-play guys have been great and for them to get two tonight and be a huge difference in the game, that’s not cliché around here. That’s huge for us.”
Dallas (4-5-4), whose winless streak reached six games, made it 2-1 late in the second when Daley beat Rinne after a solo rush. The Stars tied it early 7:23 into the third when Patrick Eaves scored off a rebound.
"We played better and got the same result,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said.
After a relatively quiet first period in which each team finished with 10 shots, Nashville opened the scoring 4:10 into in the second on Smith's power-play goal. Smith's one-timer from the high slot went over Lehtonen's glove for his fifth goal of the season. Colin Wilson screened Lehtonen, who appeared not to see Smith's shot until the last moment.
The Predators made it 2-0 at 13:57 when Forsberg's power-play wrist shot from the left circle went over Lehtonen's right shoulder. Again Lehtonen was screened, this time by ex-teammate Mike Ribeiro.
“I liked a lot of things about our game tonight,” Laviolette said. “I liked our start. I liked our special teams. I liked our response when faced with a little bit of adversity. It was a good team win, good road win.”
Dallas cut the margin in half at 16:26 when Daley scored an unassisted goal, slipping a wrister past Rinne that the Nashville goaltender appeared to not be expecting. Daley took possession inside the Dallas zone, rushed up the middle of the ice and with three Predators in close proximity got off a shot that went under Rinne's glove for his fifth goal of the season.
“It was a great individual play by him, going coast-to-coast and was able to score that goal, but one of those kind of pucks that just squeaks by and hits the post and goes in,” Rinne said.
Eaves tied it after Daley misfired on a slap shot from the slot that sailed to the left of the Nashville net but caromed off the end boards and landed in front of the Predators goal. Rinne stopped Tyler Seguin's shot but Eaves finished for his second goal of the season.
Eaves was in the lineup after Cody Eakin was a late scratch with an upper-body injury. Eakin did not practice Wednesday but participated in the morning skate with no apparent issues.
"It's upper body. It may take some time, or it may not,” Ruff said.
Seguin had an assist on Eaves' goal, but he is the only member of Dallas' offensive triumvirate, which also includes captain Jamie Benn and offseason acquisition Jason Spezza, who has a point in the Stars' past four games.
“They’ve got a lot of high-powered guys who can score but those are two of the best in the world,” Nashville defenseman Shea Weber said of Benn and Seguin. “They can change a game on a dime. Obviously, we did a pretty good job group effort of not letting them find the back of the net.”
Lehtonen stopped 30 shots for Dallas, which concludes a three-game homestand Saturday against the San Jose Sharks. The Predators finish a six-game road trip Saturday against the St. Louis Blues.
"It's tough. We still lost the game. We've won one game at home. It's frustrating right now. You try to take something out of it. We were the better team tonight. We didn't get the job done,” Daley said. “We've got to stick with in practice. We've got to get back to doing things right, doing things hard, playing like we're a winning hockey team. It's frustrating in here so we've got to get that out of here."