Something about the Phoenix Coyotes this season has meant trouble for the Dallas Stars.
For the fourth time in their last five meetings, the Stars dropped a nail-biter to the Coyotes, falling 2-1 Wednesday night at the American Airlines Center.
It was the second straight sub-par effort from Dallas against teams on the Western Conference playoff bubble, following a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Nashville last Saturday. That followed a stretch in which the Stars went on a 13-2-0 tear after the All-Star break, culminating with four straight wins in which they piled up 21 goals.
For coach Dave Tippett, the problem the last two outings was an inability to match the intensity of a desperate team.
“We just got to pay the price to win, right now we’re not doing it,” Tippett said. “We have to find that working identity. Not every goal is going to be a pretty goal. When you have your best players setting the example of working hard, that usually flows through your team.”
The Stars remain five points back of Detroit for first overall in the NHL, but their lead atop the Pacific Division over both Anaheim and San Jose has been shrinking, despite the recent hot streak.
“I think the last two games have been real frustrating,” said captain Brenden Morrow, who led all Stars forwards in ice time with 22:03. “Teams that pressure you hard, there’s not many plays out there, we haven’t really had the intensity we’ve needed to win these hard hockey games. Nashville and Phoenix have kind of exploited that.”
As for the match-up problems created when facing the Coyotes, who edged to within three points of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, Tippett believed it was more of an anomaly.
“The other games, I think you look at a number of things, our goaltending hasn’t been that good against them, but they’re a desperate team, they’re paying the price to work,” Tippett said. “They’re doing what we did to them last year. They work hard.”
One bright spot for Dallas was the inspired play of fourth-liners Brad Winchester and Toby Petersen. Winchester, who has been a frequent healthy scratch, scored his first goal of the season, assisted by Petersen, who was just recalled from AHL Iowa on Tuesday and made his Stars debut.
“They played with the energy that we were looking for and were rewarded with a goal,” said Tippett, who gave the pair some extra ice time in the third period. “When they’re playing good, we’re looking for an extra goal. They had some opportunities in the game.”
“Toby’s a great player, we were in the Edmonton organization together, so I know him pretty well,” Winchester said. “He’s smart, thinks the game really well, is positionally strong and has really good skills, so it was good to create some stuff out there with him.”
Trailing 1-0 going into the second, the Stars fell behind by two just 59 seconds into the period on Shane Doan’s 21st goal of the season. Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovonovski beat Dallas defender Mark Fistric to a dump-in behind the Stars’ net and shoveled a short pass to Radim Vrbata at the right side of the net before Fistric leveled him with a check. Vrbata then tapped the puck back to Doan in the slot, who popped it over a sliding Turco for the 2-0 edge.
Jovonovski stayed down on the ice writing in pain for over a minute, but returned about five minutes later.
Things began to get a little rough after that as two scraps erupted within 50 seconds of each other. First, 6:49 into the second, Winchester and Craig Weller squared off in a relatively even fight that might have tipped Weller’s way after he finally took down Winchester at the end.
Then, after Steve Ott ran into Doan in front of the Stars’ net after a Turco save, Phoenix defenseman Nick Boynton charged in and attacked Ott. While few actual punches were thrown, it charged up the crowd.
After generating just three shots in the period’s first 15 minutes, Dallas began to pick up the offensive pressure late. With 3:30 to go, Stu Barnes raced into the Phoenix zone down the left side and shoveled a pass into the crease towards a charging Brad Richards, but Phoenix netminder Ilja Bryzgalov, who sparkled with 20 saves in the contest, managed to smother it before Richards could re-direct it.
Dallas got one back with 2:22 to go in the period on Winchester’s first goal of the season (and first in a Stars uniform). Petersen, who won the ‘fastest skater’ event at the AHL All-Star game in January, sped into the Phoenix zone and fired a wrist shot from the left face-off circle that Bryzgalov stopped, but a charging Winchester deftly steered the rebound over the goalie’s pad and in.
“It started off with a good play on the boards from Stu to create the 2-on-1,” Winchester said. “Toby made a quick shot and I was just going to the net. I just tried to reach back and was able to get it enough to get it over him. It feels good. I want to contribute and certainly develop good four lines and it’s important for the overall success for our club.”
“We would have liked to see a different outcome, that’s for sure, but it was good for me to get that one out of the way and keep moving forward,” said Petersen, who also indicated skating with Winchester made his first game with the Stars go a lot smoother. “ It helps that we’ve had a history together and have played together for a couple of years - it helped my transition coming in here tonight, for sure.”
The Stars continued to pour on the pressure as the second wound down, with their best opportunity coming on Matt Niskanen’s point-blank wrist shot from the slot with six seconds remaining, but Bryzgalov made a nice blocker save.
Behind 2-1 heading into the final period, the Stars had the first prime opportunity of the third. About 4:30 in, Mike Modano blasted a slap shot off the rush from just inside the blue line that Bryzgalov kicked out. The rebound went right to a charging Ott in the right face-off circle, who uncorked a one-timer, but Bryzgalov, sliding across, made the save.
About two minutes later, Petersen almost scored his first goal in his first Stars game, but Bryzgalov stopped his wrist shot from the left circle, after he was set up by Winchester in the slot.
Just 20 seconds after that, Turco made two huge saves to keep the Stars close, robbing Steven Reinprecht twice. After Vrbata feathered a pass through multiple legs out of the right corner to Reinprecht in the slot, his wrist shot was stopped by Turco.
In his attempt to spark his team’s offense, Tippett mixed and matched his forward lines throughout the second half of the third period, but Dallas was unable to generate the equalizer.
With 1:10 on the clock, Turco was pulled for an extra attacker, and the Stars’ best chance came with just seven seconds remaining when Richards fired a slap shot from the top of the left circle. The puck was blocked in front and sat in front for a tantalizing moment, but before Jere Lehtinen could swipe it in, Phoenix defender Keith Ballard cleared it into the corner.
“I think they did a good job checking,” Morrow said. “We were getting some opportunities from out far, they battled hard, had a better effort in front of their net. Bryzgalov made the first save and we didn’t really pay the price to get to the rebounds.”
Phoenix jumped on the scoreboard first, as Peter Mueller became the first NHL rookie to reach the 20-goal mark at 9:26. Joel Perrault fed a quick pass out from behind the net to Mueller charging the net from the left circle, and snapped a one-timer over Turco’s glove for the 1-0 lead.
Turco came up with a huge save with 3:10 remaining in the period to keep the Stars in the game, sliding across the crease to stop Michael York’s re-direction from the right post.
Dallas still outshot Phoenix 9-6 in the opening frame, but did not have the same quality chances as the Coyotes had at the other end.
After completing a three-game homestand with a disappointing 1-2-0 record, the Stars next face the Colorado Avalanche in a home-and-home set starting with an afternoon matinee (2 pm start, my27) in Denver on Saturday before returning home for the second match-up Sunday (7 pm, my27).
It will be the Stars’ first chance to see the revamped Avs with new/old additions Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote. The Avalanche are currently seventh in the ultra-competitive West, but just two points ahead of ninth-place Vancouver.
“We’ve got to go to work and try to straighten this thing out against a good hockey team on Saturday,” Morrow said.
“I think if we don’t regain (our intensity), we’re going to get spanked,” Tippett warned.
- Winchester’s goal was his first in 66 NHL games, dating back to Dec. 6, 2006, early last season when he skated for Edmonton.
- Petersen, who signed with Dallas as a free agent last July, last collected an NHL point on April 7, 2007 while with the Oilers. He led AHL Iowa with 21 goals and 51 points and also scored a penalty shot goal and two assists in the AHL All-Star Game in January.
- Barnes’ assist on Winchester’s goal snapped a 13-game pointless drought.
- Defenseman Philippe Boucher, skating in just his fourth game after missing 38 with a shoulder injury, injured the other shoulder on the opening shift, coming off after just 14 seconds. He did not return and is characterized as ‘week-to-week.’
“Not the one that he had surgery on, it’s the other one,” Tippett said. “He’ll be re-evaluated tomorrow, but his early indication is week-to-week, so he’ll probably have to have an x-ray or film taken on it tomorrow.”
- Rookie defenseman Matt Niskanen returned to the lineup after sitting out three games with a bruised foot. He led the Stars with three blocked shots and logged 22:45 of ice time. To make room for him, fellow rookie Nicklas Grossman was a healthy scratch for the first time since he was brought up from Iowa in November.
- Center Mike Ribeiro’s four-game point streak (three goals, eight points) was snapped. He is now pointless in the last five meetings with Phoenix.
- Loui Eriksson’s career-high five-game scoring streak (six goals, seven points) was also snapped.
- The power play unit was 0-for-4, leaving them 0-for-11 over the last two games.
- The Stars had scored at least one goal in 12 straight third periods from Feb. 7 - Mar. 1, the sixth-longest such streak in franchise history, but did not connect in the final frame in this game.
1 - 0 PHX
2 - 0 PHX
2 - 1 PHX