If the Dallas Stars are going to make any kind of run towards respectability in the Western Conference, they'll need plenty of things to go their way. Injured players have to return, defensive play has to be tightened up, the power play needs to convert more often, and backup goaltending must be reliable enough to give Marty Turco a breather.
Despite a 3-0 loss to the Nashville Predators at Sommet Center on Saturday night, Tobias Stephan may have finally proved that he's a solid alternative in order to keep Turco fresh.
After starting 17 straight games, Turco was given the night off in favor of Stephan, and the Swiss netminder didn't disappoint in making just his first start since Halloween. Dallas' second-round pick in the 2002 draft, Stephan nearly beat the Predators single-handedly, allowing just a pair of goals on 37 shots.
"I've been trying to build confidence in practice but I have to be more calm," Stephan said. "I am learning a lot everyday and it's a process for me."
Stephan's heroics, though, went unrewarded, as the Stars failed to win their second straight after an impressive win on Friday against the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. Dallas lost for the third time in the last six games to remain in the conference basement.
"We didn't push hard enough," coach Dave Tippett said. "We were looking to make a difference tonight, but it just wasn't enough. No one made a difference tonight. These are valuable points and we just didn't find a way to win."
Joel Ward had two goals, and David Legwand also scored for the Predators, who won for the first time in four games. Goalie Dan Ellis finished with 27 saves for his eighth career shutout -- and second in his last six games -- as the former Stars netminder won for the first time since Nov. 23, a span of five starts.
Stephan was sharp throughout the contest, especially in the first two periods when Nashville peppered him with 27 shots. He was able to turn aside all but one of the attempts, and did so by putting substance ahead of style.
The burly netminder kicked aside puck after puck in any fashion he could. Stephan sprawled, scrambled and flopped around with such effectiveness he left plenty of Predators shaking their heads and looking skyward.
"I was a little too aggressive at the start," Stephan said. "I was trying to be patient and calm at first, but it took me some time to settle in."
Stephan's best save came in a scoreless second period. With the Stars down by a goal, the Predators went in on a 3-on-1. From the left side, Radek Bonk slid Greg Zanon a pass in which the defenseman tried one-timing into a gaping net in front of him. But Stephan denied the chance with a scintillating glove save after stretching far to his left.
Stephan also robbed Martin Erat's breakaway attempt in the first period while the Predators were shorthanded, and then J.P Dumont's partial breakaway in the third period with eight minutes left to keep the game within reach with the Predators up by two.
But Dallas was unable to cash in on Stephan's money-making saves.
"We aren't doing everything we can," center Brad Richards said. "We have the personnel to make it work and there have been nights where there are lots of chances. We just aren't capitalizing and we need to find ways to."
Legwand helped ice it for Nashville with his sixth of the year with 13 minutes to go in regulation. Shortly after a stinging hit by Nashville Jerred Smithson on Dallas defenseman Darryl Sydor deep in the Dallas end, Legwand skated out of the right corner with the puck before jamming it past Stephan from in tight to give the Predators a 2-0 lead.
Ward then capped the scoring with his second of the game and fifth of the year with an empty-net goal with 26 seconds to go.
Dallas also wasn't helped by a power-play unit that is the worst in the league on the road, going 0-for-4 with the man advantage.
"Some nights we are not on the same page, and you can pick a lot of negatives since the power play isn't clicking," Richards said. "I've never been through a drought like this on the power play."
The Predators opened the scoring on Ward's goal just 4 1/2 minutes into the game. Dumont gave Ward a behind-the-back drop pass at the Dallas blue line along the left boards, and Ward took a couple of strides before winding up for a slap shot. But with Stephan way out of the net to cut down the angle, Ward continued to skate down the wing before cutting to the net along the goal line and tucking the puck in for a 1-0 Nashville lead.
"We haven't set things up very well for ourselves," Richards said. "We've dug quite a hole."
Dallas returns home to play the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday night (7:30, FSN). It'll be the second time in seven days the two Pacific Division rivals will meet in North Texas. The Coyotes defeated the Stars 5-3 on Wednesday at American Airlines Center.
Phoenix had won three of its last five entering Saturday night's game against Detroit.
--The Stars were without defenseman Stephane Robidas for the second straight game after having surgery Thursday to repair his broken jaw.
--Forward Sean Avery sat out his sixth and final game of the NHL's mandated suspension.
--Dallas fell to 8-11-1 all-time in Nashville.
--Dallas killed off both of Nashville's power-play opportunities.
--It was the second time this season Dallas was blanked. They were shut-out 5-0 at New Jersey on Oct. 22.
--Dallas is now 1-6 in the second half of back-to-back games.
--Dallas fell to 2-11-3 when the opponent scores first.
--The Stars are now 6-9-1 on the road.
--Ellis now has two shutouts against the Stars in his career after being drafted by Dallas in the second round of the 2000 draft.
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