The road may have slowed down the Dallas Stars a bit, but it couldn’t stop them.
Fresh off a successful five-game homestand in which they went 4-0-1 and won the last four in a row while outscoring the opposition 14-3, the Stars kept the ball rolling in the first contest of a six-game road trip in defeating the New York Rangers 3-2 in an afternoon matinee at Madison Square Garden.
After registering three straight wins last week, backup netminder Mike Smith got the start in goal and was outstanding, making a career-high 39 saves, including 16 in the second period.
“It seemed like the ice was tilted a bit, but we found a way to win and that’s what you’ve got to do on the road,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s not pretty, but you get it done and you move on. I was just doing what I can to give the team a chance and tonight we were fortunate to come out on top, get a few goals and win the game.”
Many of the stop were sensational, and Smith’s heroics allowed the Stars, who were outshot 41-18 overall, to remain in the contest despite being outplayed through most of the first two periods, until the offense came through with a couple of big goals, including the game-winner on a power play by captain Brenden Morrow in the third period.
“We looked like we were stuck in the mud there a little bit, but give the guys credit, they kept hanging around, Smitty kept making great saves and as the game wore on, the third period was our best period by far,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “Our goaltending has to be top-notch for our team to be a top team, and it was top-notch tonight.”
“We didn’t carry much of the play tonight, we didn’t sustain any pressure and they had it in our end and Smitty was a wall for us and he gave us the chance to win,” Morrow said. “We talked about it after two periods that it was a pretty good situation for us, considering how bad we were playing. We kept it up, he played real well for us and we found that big bounce.”
Jussi Jokinen and Loui Eriksson also scored for Dallas, both on breakaways.
The victory was the Stars’ season-high fifth in a row and allowed them to maintain their lead in the Pacific Division.
The game was also significant because winger Joel Lundqvist, who was recalled from AHL Iowa on Saturday, faced his twin brother Henrik, the Rangers’ star goaltender. Last season when the Rangers visited the American Airlines Center on Dec. 14, 2006, the two became just the third set of twins in NHL history to play against each other. Henrik shone in that battle, stopping 43 of 45 shots for a 5-2 New York victory, while Joel delivered two hits.
This time, Joel’s Stars came out on top and Smith stole the victory. Joel had two more hits in this game in 7:26 of ice time.
“It’s a special feeling, but I really tried to focus on my own game, especially when I came up like I did yesterday (from Iowa), I just tried to focus on playing a good game,” Joel said. “Then, in the warm-up and you see him on the other side, you get a little bit extra nervous.”
With the score even at 2-2 going into the third, the Stars were short-handed for the first 1:16 of the period, and Smith stopped Brendan Shanahan’s booming slap shot from the top of the left face-off circle, as well as a couple of rebound attempts, just as the penalty expired. Shanahan and Steve Ott then squared off for a fight after Smith smothered the puck.
Dallas then took their first lead of the day on a power play of their own on Morrow’s ninth goal of the season at 4:04. The play was set up by Mike Ribeiro, who carried the puck into the New York zone down the left side, completely faked out Rangers defenseman Daniel Girardi as he blew around him, skated in on Lundqvist, then slid a sweet cross-ice pass to Morrow on the right side, who popped a one-timer into the open side of the net.
“I was just kind of Johnny-on-the-spot for a great play by Ribs,” Morrow said. “It was pretty much just a tap-in. When I turned, I saw him do something, and I was driving the net, and it was just a tap-in. He mesmerizes them somehow, I don’t know what he does, he’s got some Criss Angel in him or something.”
“I was coming with a lot of speed, and Brenden was coming, so I figured he has a better shot, so I’ll give it to him,” Ribeiro said.
The Stars gained some momentum from the goal and a newly-formed line of Mike Modano, Jokinen and Niklas Hagman applied considerable offensive pressure. A pretty tic-tac-toe passing play between the three resulted in Hagman’s one-timer from the right circle about 8:20 into the third, but Lundqvist made the save. Seconds later, another nice cross-ice feed from Modano to Jokinen for a one-timer was denied by Lundqvist again.
Smith then made a big stop on Jaromir Jagr’s wrist shot from the left circle to maintain the lead.
Shanahan had another prime opportunity with 2:20 remaining as the 37-year-old winger swept out from behind the net on a wrap-around attempt, but Smith snagged his shot with the glove.
With Lundqvist on the bench for an extra attacker in the final 30 seconds, Modano was whistled for hooking on Jaromir Jagr with just 18.8 seconds left, so the Stars had to kill a 6-on-4 disadvantage until the final buzzer. A big face-off win by Ott allowed the Stars to clear the zone, but New York had one last chance as Shanahan, who led all players with nine shots on goal, sped over the Dallas blue line and unleashed a slap shot that Smith kicked aside right before the clock expired.
“We were hanging in there, we just stayed with it,” Ribeiro said. “We knew we weren’t playing that good, but we just played hard, and took the lead in the third and after that, I think we played much better after we took the lead.”
Entering the second period tied 1-1 despite being outshot 12-6 in the first, the Stars fell behind again just 1:02 into the frame on Shanahan’s seventh goal. After Sean Avery fed a backhand pass out from behind the Dallas net, it deflected off a Star defender’s skate in front and Shanahan found the loose puck and ripped it past a falling Smith.
Smith then denied Avery’s own wrist shot from the right circle on a partial breakaway a minute later.
The Stasr then dodged a bullet when Chris Drury sped into the Dallas zone on a breakaway at the nine-minute mark, and Smith denied his deke attempt.
Midway through the second, the Rangers held an unbelievable 13-0 edge in shots for the period (and 25-6 overall), but Smith kept the Stars in the game.
Morrow then registered the Stars’ first shot of the period on a hard wrist shot from the right circle, forcing Lundqvist to make a tough pad save just as New York’s Jason Strudwick was whistled for holding, putting the Stars on their second power play of the contest, where they began to re-establish some offensive flow.
That led to Eriksson’s equalizer on the man-advantage at 11:54. He snuck behind the New York defense, received a long pass from Sergei Zubov at the Rangers blue line and outraced Girardi to go in on a breakaway. Eriksson then slid a quick shot through Lundqvist’s legs for his first goal of the season.
The Stars almost had a bad bounce turn really bad when Jagr fired a cross-ice pass from low in the left circle that pinballed off Stars rookie defenseman Matt Niskanen in front and off the tip of Smith’s glove and the corner of the crossbar before falling harmlessly behind the net.
Smith came up big again with just 8.9 seconds remaining in the second and the Rangers on a power play, thwarting Martin Straka’s deft re-direction of Michal Rozsival’s slap shot from the blue line.
That was Smith’s 16th save of the period, in which New York outshot Dallas 17-3.
“The pressure was on us the whole second period,” Morrow said. “We didn’t have a fore-check, we didn’t have a cycle, the whole second period, he was just making save after save. He held us in there, he gave us a chance to win and we found it.”
The Rangers had the edge territorially early on, as Smith was called upon to make nice saves on rookie Brandon Dubinsky’s in-close chance three and a half minutes in and on Scott Gomez’s booming slap shot a minute later.
Smith then made a spectacular save while flailing on his stomach on Paul Mara’s point-blank shot from the right side of the crease just over five minutes into the first.
New York then opened the scoring on captain Jagr’s fifth goal of the season at 6:30. It was a fluky, broken-down play as the Rangers sped into the Dallas zone on a 3-on-2 rush. Jagr received a pass from Dubinsky in the right circle and his attempted pass back across seem to ricochet off Stars defender Philippe Boucher’s stick and slipped past Smith for the early 1-0 lead.
The Stars’ first real scoring opportunity came two and a half minutes later, when rookie Nicklas Grossman’s innocent-looking wrist shot from the blue line deflected off something on the way to the net, forcing Lundqvist to make a tough glove save.
Smith then came up with a nice stop on Sean Avery’s one-timer from the right circle with 6:15 to go in the first.
The Stars then equaled the contest in the final minute of the period with the clubs skating four aside on Jokinen’s eighth goal of the season and first in four games since his magical four-goal contest Nov. 16. With the Rangers threatening in the Dallas zone, Stephane Robidas opportunistically dove to poke-check the puck off Gomez’s stick, and Jokinen picked up the loose puck in the neutral zone and raced in on a breakaway. Jokinen did not polish off one of his patented shootout moves, but he did deke to his forehand and fired over Lundqvist’s outstretched pad with 52 seconds remaining.
Next up for the Stars on their season-long six-game road trip that includes the entire Atlantic Division will be the New York Islanders Monday (6 pm, my27).
“It’s actually enjoyable,” Tippett said of facing clubs from the Eastern Conference. “We’ve been stuck out there in our division, our conference, for months it seems like. I know the players are excited about it. I know the coaching staff, instead of looking at the same Anaheim and San Jose, LA and Phoenix time after time, you’re looking at different buildings, different players. Preparing for different teams, that gives coaches enthusiasm.”
- Morrow’s goal extended his career-high point streak to eight games. He has four goals and 10 points over that span. For the second game in a row, Modano led the team in shots on goal, with five.
- Eriksson’s goal was his first since last March 27 against Phoenix, a span of 18 games (including last spring’s playoffs). It was also his second point in four games (one goal and one assist).
- Zubov’s assist on Eriksson’s goal gives him a total of 15 points (one goal, 14 assists) over the last 12 games. He is ranked in the top five in the NHL in defensemen scoring. As usual, he led the Stars in ice time with 27:07.
- Modano also earned an assist on Eriksson’s goal, giving him a modest three-game scoring streak. He also has four goals and 10 points in his last nine outings.
- Niskanen’s assist on Morrow’s goal gives him a career-high three-game assist streak. He also finished with the second-most ice time on the club, skating 24:43.
- The Stars’ red-hot power play, which entered the day ranked third in the entire NHL, finished the game 2-for-3, contributing a goal for the sixth time in their last seven contests. They have now connected on 12-of-24 for a stellar 50 percent efficiency rating over their last seven outings. Overall, they are now 22-for-84 (26.2 percent).
“It’s given us a couple of points,” Morrow said of the PP unit. “Early on in the season, we weren’t having much success on it, but right now, it seems like we’re getting that timely goal when the game’s on the line, we’re finding ways to get it in the net. It was a big win for us here.”
- Winger Brad Winchester skated in his first contest since Nov. 2, when he suffered an abdominal strain. He went down to AHL Iowa on a conditioning assignment Friday and was recalled Saturday. He missed a total of nine games. In 8:05 of ice time, Winchester delivered three hits.
- Winger Jere Lehtinen missed his second consecutive game with an abdominal strain. The severity of his condition is still uncertain. Meanwhile, winger Antti Miettinen, who scored a goal Friday against Toronto, also sat out the contest with a lower body injury and is listed as day-to-day.
- New Stars’ co-GM Brett Hull signed a lot of autographs for New York fans from the press box.