DALLAS - When things were going bad for the boys in the movie "Animal House," the misfit Deltas thought a road trip would do them some good. The Dallas Stars are in the same boat.
A disastrous six-game homestand came to a dreadful conclusion on Sunday afternoon, as the Pittsburgh Penguins dealt Dallas its fifth consecutive loss with a 4-1 decision at American Airlines Center.
The Stars will now hope for greener pastures on the road, where seven of their next 10 games will be played.
"It's getting ugly," defenseman Darryl Sydor said. "It's just disappointing regarding the fact that we worked hard for one-and-a-half to two months to get back in the race and now look where we are. Obviously this homestand wasn't good, and not what we wanted, but now we've got to go on the road. We've got to look at small things right now and that's the next games. It's a heck of a trip, and those teams are battling, too."
Undermanned, the patchwork Stars were no match for a Penguins team that has been on a roll since firing the coach, Michel Therrien, that led them to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. Entrenched in a hotly contested playoff chase in the Eastern Conference, Pittsburgh won for the fifth time in the last six games, and looked the complete opposite of a Stars team that has been unable to snap a string of unfortunate injuries and overcome a gas tank that needs a fill-up.
Already without the likes of Brad Richards and Brenden Morrow, the Stars were missing gritty forward Steve Ott, who can't play until the league assesses his actions following Saturday's loss to Anaheim. Ott received a match penalty at the end of the game when he was involved in a scrum behind the Ducks net, an infraction that carries an automatic league review.
Ott faces a possible suspension, or the league can rule his one-game absence on Sunday satisfied any future punishment.
"We need to support each other…that's not right what happened there," Sydor said about the Ott situation. "If you're going to win as a team you need to protect each other. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. Nothing's going to change here. We've got injuries, but what everyone does have here is heart and work ethic."
The Penguins, meanwhile, played without captain Sidney Crosby, who sat out his third straight game because of a groin injury.
That didn't matter, though, as the league's leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin, was pretty much unstoppable, garnering a goal and two primary assists for the Penguins, who've now won four straight over the Stars.
Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Miroslav Satan also scored for Pittsburgh, which improved to 5-1-1 under interim coach Dan Bylsma. Marc-Andre Fleury made 20 saves to win his 100th career NHL game.
"We didn't have any emotion this afternoon," defenseman Stephane Robidas said. "We didn't play the system we wanted to play. We're an effective team when we play together as a team, and when we don't, we're not. It's been hard for us lately and it's not getting any easier."
Backup goalie Tobias Stephan made a special guest appearance in the crease for Dallas, giving workhorse Marty Turco a break after the veteran started a franchise-record 32 straight games. Despite the score, Stephan played well in his first game since Jan. 8 -- and his first start since Dec. 13 in Nashville -- finishing with 19 saves.
Loui Eriksson scored the lone goal for the Stars, who are just 3-7 after a stretch in which they won seven of eight.
"That's probably the easiest thing to do is to just surrender everything and say uncle, but that's not in your heart of hearts," center Mike Modano said. "You still want to win and do everything you can. We're far from that, and I don't think that's on anybody's mind and we believe we can muster up something here the last quarter of the season. Everybody is expected to play the same way, and now we need everybody to chip in some sort of way."
With most of the teams the Stars are battling in the Western Conference playoff race idle, Dallas didn't lose any ground on seventh-place Edmonton and eighth-place Anaheim. With 65 points, they still find themselves just two points behind the Oilers and Ducks, but they're looking up at both Minnesota and Nashville in the standings.
Dallas continues to linger in 11th place in the West.
"We're running so low, the people that we've really relied on in the past month or so, they've pushed and pushed hard and tanks are low," head coach Dave Tippett said. "It's not the care, it's not the try, it's what happens after that. We're so depleted that some of those people got tired. Were trying to push and find some people to take some of those key situations and we're not doing that.
"Right now in our situation is, older guys (that we need) but we need the push from underneath, too. I still think there's a lot more from those guys underneath."
Down 4-0 after two periods, Eriksson made it 4-1 on the power play when he recorded his team-leading 28th goal six minutes into the third period. Standing eight-feet in front of the net, Eriksson wristed a shot past Fleury after accepting a pass from Chris Conner from behind the goal line.
It was only the team's sixth tally during this unfortunate five-game skid.
"(The team's) a little rattled," Modano said. "February didn't go quite as well as we hoped and planned it would, but there are a ton of games left. We're at a crossroads now, where we need to heighten the alert level and the desperation level. This is our April now. March is our April."
With a 2-0 lead after the first period, Satan upped Pittsburgh's lead to 3-0 with his 17th of the year eight minutes into the second. He was the beneficiary of Trevor Daley's gaffe, as the defenseman flubbed a passing attempt with the puck rolling inside the Stars right circle. Satan accepted the gift, moved around Stephan, and tucked the puck in.
Malkin made it 4-0 on the power play when he took advantage of an unfortunate bounce at 12:38 of the second. After a clearing attempt by Brian Sutherby around the boards ricocheted off one of the stansions that hold the glass together, the puck landed right on Malkin's stick before ending up in the net following a quick wrist shot.
Staal scored his 17th of the year to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead just four minutes into the game. On a two-on-one, Staal fed Malkin, who's shot from the right circle was turned aside by Stephan, but Staal was able to out-maneuver Robidas to neatly deposit the rebound into an empty net.
Letang made it 2-0 with 3:39 left in the first period when he notched his sixth of the year with the help of another assist by Malkin. After receiving a pass from the big Russian just outside the Stars blue line on the right wing, Letang burst into the zone before cutting towards the net and lifting a backhand over Stephan.
"Three of those goals were kind of funky bounces, and (Fleury) made some huge saves in the third," Sydor said. "We just didn't get many chances in the first two periods."
The Stars hit the road now for a three-game trip out west that begins on Tuesday at Western Conference-leading San Jose (9:30, FSN). The Sharks have lost two of their last three, including a 3-2 defeat at Montreal on Saturday.
The Stars will face the Sharks one more time after this meeting, traveling to San Jose on March 21 for the six-game series finale.
"It's hard to explain. I'd love to get this team going, but it's really frustrating," Robidas said. "We had a couple games I thought we played well and I thought we deserved better, but we can't feel sorry for ourselves. We've got a big game in San Jose Tuesday night and we've got to go from there. We're in a tough spot right now but that's reality. We've got to stick together and bear down."
--Left wing Fabian Brunnstrom was scratched, with Ray Sawada inserted into the lineup. Conner replaced Ott.
--Eriksson's goal was his first in six games.
--Modano snapped a five-game pointless slide with an assist on Eriksson's tally.
--The Stars will also play Los Angeles and Anaheim during their upcoming west-coast trip.
--Dallas dropped to 11-21-5 when the opposition scores first.
--It was only the third game between the two teams since the 2003-04 season, and fourth time that Pittsburgh has visited Dallas since 2000-01.
--Dallas dropped to 13-7-1 in its last 21 home games.
--The Stars have erased 39 of the last 43 opposition power-play opportunities.
--These two teams will always be connected in league history, as the Penguins defeated the Minnesota North Stars in the finals to win the Stanley Cup in 1991.
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