It came down to one team’s best player taking over a game and unfortunately for the Dallas Stars, it wasn’t theirs.
Joe Thornton put on a virtuoso performance, scoring the game-winning goal late in the third period and adding two assists to lead the San Jose Sharks to a 3-2 victory over the Stars Wednesday night at the American Airlines Center.
Playing their seventh consecutive game in a different city in 11 days, the Stars returned home from a season-long six game road trip during which they went 4-2 and were chasing the Sharks from the start, battling back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to tie it. They were unable to capitalize on a 47-second 5-on-3 late in the third period while trailing by a goal.
Mike Modano scored early in the third period to even it at 2-2, but the Stars were unable to stop the surging Sharks, who won their third straight game to edge to within two points of Dallas for the Pacific Division lead.
Trevor Daley also scored for the Stars, netting his first goal of the season on a spectacular end-to-end rush. Marty Turco was solid in goal, making 25 saves.
But the player of the game was clearly Thornton.
“I don’t think it was fatigue,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said of the club’s slow start. “We’re a team that we have to be clicking on all cylinders and if we have a few hiccups in our game or have a few guys under power, it’s hard to win. Looking at the game, Joe Thornton had a goal and two assists, he was the difference in the game. Our guys, we need to find ways to win them, whoever’s on the other team. I thought we hung around it, but we came up short in the end.”
“He’s one of the best in the league every year for a reason,” added forward Stu Barnes. “He’s a rare combination of big, unbelievable skill, great hands, great shot and he plays with an edge, too. He’s got great vision, he’s a great passer, and he’s quick, too. Great player and he had a great game tonight.”
Behind 2-1 going into third, Dallas came out strong to start the period, controlling the play for the first several minutes, and generating some scoring chances.
Brad Winchester ripped a slap shot from the right face-off circle less than three minutes in that Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov kicked out.
An even closer call came 4:24 when Modano, skating behind the San Jose net, backhanded the puck in front. It slid into Nabokov covering the near post and then went out of sight, seemingly on or very near the goal line, before the whistle blew. There was an official video review to double-check to see if the puck crossed the line, but it was inconclusive, so it remained no goal.
“It looked like it disappeared for a minute, but I think it was stuck under his toe, between his pad and the post,” Modano said.
Energized by that play, the Stars continued to press until breaking through for the tying goal, Modano’s ninth of the season, at 6:08. Nabokov stopped rookie Matt Niskanen’s shot from the blue line, but the rebound came out to Loui Eriksson just to the left of the crease. With Nabokov down, Eriksson turned behind the net and slid a nice pass out to Modano on the right side, and a quick wrist shot from a sharp angle zipped into the open side of the cage.
“Loui made a good play and Nabokov seemed to overplay it and couldn’t get back, so it was a bang-bang play,” Modano said. “It was quick, but he was out of the net, so it was nice.”
The Sharks then struck for the game-winner on Thornton’s 12th of the year with 8:36 remaining. On a dump-in from center, Milan Michalek retrieved it behind the Dallas net after Turco had to retreat back to his crease because the puck was in the ‘no-play’ area near the corner. Michalek then fed a charging Thornton in the slot and his one-timer beat Turco for the 3-2 lead.
The Stars applied offensive pressure after that and Mike Ribeiro had an opportunity off the rush into San Jose’s zone, but his wrist shot from the left circle with 4:35 to play was turned aside by Nabokov, who has started every game this season for the Sharks.
The Stars then got two late overlapping power plays, their first ones of the game, when Mike Grier was whistled for interference with 3:55 left and Craig Rivet was called for delay of game with 2:42 to go when he shot the puck into the crowd from his defensive zone.
The Stars’ best chance on the 5-on-3 came with 2:09 remaining when Modano’s booming slap shot from the blue line went through Nabokov, but somehow managed to slide just wide of the post.
With 1:25 left and the Stars still on a one-man advantage, Turco went to the bench for an extra attacker, but they were unable to solve Nabokov again.
“We had a couple of point-blank chances there, but they didn’t go in,” Tippett said. “That’s frustrating, that’s for sure.”
“The last two minutes, the ice is horrible at that point in the game,” Modano said. “It’s beat up, it’s snowy, the plays you think you can make earlier in the period when the ice is nice and smooth and not beat up, it’s not the case there late in the game. It was a bad time for us to get those power plays.”
With the Stars still pressing with their own net empty and just 30 seconds left in the contest, the Sharks cleared their zone and the puck slowly rolled into the Dallas zone towards the yawning goal, but tapped directly off the post. Thornton, racing after it alongside the Stars’ Sergei Zubov, managed to tap the rebound back across the crease, but it went out the other side.
The Stars were unable to set up again in the Sharks’ zone before the final buzzer sounded.
“We stayed with it, we did get back in the game a couple of times, but then gave up goals real quick after that,” Barnes said. “That’s another part of the process of continuing to get better and be more consistent.”
Entering the second period trailing 1-0, Dallas almost gave up another one in the first two minutes, but Turco made a big sliding save on Grier after he sped in on a breakaway and made a deke to his backhand.
The Stars tied it up at the 3:31 mark when Daley did his best Bobby Orr impersonation, picking up the puck in his own zone and carrying it the length of the ice before unleashing a wicked wrist shot from the left circle through a screen that squeezed through Nabokov. It was Daley’s first goal in 39 regular season games, although he did get one in last year’s first-round playoff series against Vancouver.
“He’s a good skater, that’s what you have to do, put the puck on the net, see what happens,” Tippett said. “We need Dales to do that more, not necessarily score more, but just to see him lug the puck up, because that’s an area that he can continue to excel at for us.”
Dallas came close to taking the lead less than a minute and a half later as winger Junior Lessard, making his season debut after being recalled from AHL Iowa earlier in the day, got behind the San Jose defense and had a point-blank backhander in front, but Nabokov made the stop.
San Jose then grabbed back the advantage when captain Patrick Marleau registered his first point in six games by scoring off a nice feed from Thornton at 6:02. Thornton picked up his second assist of the night by threading a pass from the right side boards through about three players to a wide open Marleau in the slot, and Marleau’s one-timer beat Turco over the blocker for the 2-1 lead.
“We know what kind of player that he is and the second goal was a prime example,” Turco said of Thornton. “Two guys go to him and leave (Marleau) in front. It was still a great shot, actually, on Patty’s off-wing. It happened so fast, I was anticipating he would pass it back, but one guy alone in front, it went through a bunch of guys. That is why (Thornton) gets the recognition he does, just headsy plays. You don’t try to stop him, you just try to contain him as best you can.”
Dallas got themselves into some more trouble several minutes later as a phantom hooking call on captain Brenden Morrow put the Stars down two men for 21 seconds. While San Jose couldn’t convert on the two-man advantage, Thornton did have a great chance, as he swept out from behind the net, but Turco thwarted his quick in-close wrist shot.
There was a brief delay with 6:26 to go when linesman Steve Miller was clipped in the face by an errant stick just after dropping the puck. He stayed down on the ice for several minutes and was attended to by Stars head athletic trainer Dave Surprenant before he left the ice under his own power. Miller missed the rest of the second period but in true hockey-tough fashion, returned for the third.
San Jose had the game’s first scoring opportunity as Grier broke into the Dallas zone and ripped a slap shot from the right circle that Turco saved.
The Stars’ first opportunity came three minutes later when, following an energetic shift by the fourth line, Stephane Robidas boomed a slap shot from the blue line through a screen that Nabokov couldn’t quite control, but after the puck was loose for a second, he managed to cover it up.
Dallas had another opportunity with about 3:40 remaining in the period, as Morrow unleashed a wrist shot from the high slot, but Nabokov made a nice kick save.
Just 15 seconds later on the counter-attack, Marleau whipped a hard wrist shot from the top of the left circle that Turco kicked out. Marc-Edouard Vlasic had two point-blank whacks at the loose rebound before Turco managed to smother it.
The Sharks finally broke through Turco’s invisible barrier with just 1:45 left in the first as they connected on a power play, the first man-advantage goal allowed by Dallas in 14 attempts over the past five games. Jonathan Cheechoo controlled the puck in deep just to the left of the crease, and, whether it was intentional or not, managed to bank the puck off defenseman Nicklas Grossman’s skate and through Turco’s pads for the 1-0 lead.
For Cheechoo, who won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer with 56 in 2005-06, it was just his fourth goal of the season and first in 12 games.
Turco made another big save on Thornton’s one-timer in front with just four seconds left, giving San Jose a 12-5 edge in shots over the first period.
“They came at us pretty hard at the start, we felt we did a pretty good job of hanging around the game, but we needed a couple of key plays at key times that could have been a factor,” Tippett said. “It certainly wasn’t our best game by any stretch, but we found a way to keep ourselves in it, but we came up short.”
The Stars continue their current four-game homestand Friday against the defending Eastern Conference champion Ottawa Senators (7:30 pm, FSN).
- Defenseman Philippe Boucher missed the game after he was placed on Injured Reserve earlier in the day with a shoulder ailment that he’d been playing through all season. He underwent surgery today and will be re-evaluated in four weeks. “I give Bouch a lot of credit, this is something that’s been bothering him for a while,” Tippett said. “It started to get worse and worse, and we talked to him last week and said if he could get through until Norstrom came back, and he gutted it out and played some good hockey on the road for us, but it came to a point that it needed some fixing and that’s where we are today.”
Through 28 games, Boucher has one goal and 11 points and leads the club in blocked shots (54), while ranking second in ice time, averaging 22:20 per game.
- With Boucher out, fellow defenseman Mattias Norstrom rejoined the lineup after missing 13 games with a fractured orbital bone near his left eye suffered Nov. 7 in San Jose. Norstrom earned an assist on Daley’s goal for his first point of the season in his 16th game. He also blocked a team-high three shots while logging 15:22 of ice time.
- Modano’s goal snapped a four-game pointless streak.
- Eriksson’s assist on Modano’s goal was his first point in six games.
- Lessard, who played his seventh career NHL game, had connected for eight goals and 18 points with the Iowa Stars in 21 AHL games this season. He finished the night with three shots on goal in 13:46 of ice time. “I’m really going day-by-day,” Lessard said. “I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow or a week, so that’s why it’s important that I go straight to work every day and try to do something out there to make them notice me. At my age (27), every chance I get, I’ve got to make the best of it.”
- The power play unit, ranked fifth overall in the NHL entering tonight with a 22.2 percent efficiency rating (24-for-108), went 0-for-2 and is now in the midst of a 2-for-24 slump over the past six games. Meanwhile, the penalty killing crew, fourth in the league after successfully nullifying 31-of-32 opposing power plays over the previous eight contests, including 13 straight over the previous four, killed off 4-of-5. Dallas is the only team in the league in the top five in both categories.
Wrist shot -