DALLAS - With one swipe of his stick, James Neal helped the Dallas Stars get a couple of monkeys off their backs.
Neal scored his team-leading seventh goal of the season 2:57 into overtime Wednesday night to give the Stars a 4-3 victory in a wildly entertaining contest over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the American Airlines Center.
The triumph leaves Dallas 3-0-1 in their last four contests and represented the club’s first victory past regulation in five tries this season. It was also nice for the squad to win at home after dropping their previous two outings here by a combined 7-1 score.
After rallying from a late 3-2 deficit, Neal put home the game-winner on his backhand, shoveling the rebound of a Stephane Robidas slap shot into the open side of the net while wide open in front. Toronto rookie netminder Jonas Gustavsson, who chose to sign with the Leafs as a free agent this summer instead of Dallas, lunged with his stick but could not get across the crease in time.
“Robi went to pass it over and it hit Komisarek’s stick, and then the same play again, and he got a good shot on net,” Neal said of his first career overtime goal. “I was right there for the rebound and put it in. It crossed the line pretty slow but I’ll take it.”
“It’s a huge goal for him,” coach Marc Crawford said of Neal. “We had talked all game long of the play of young Gustavsson, the goaltender. He does challenge, but there are rebounds that spray out, especially if you stay off to the side. It took us all that time to get one, and James was the benefactor of having a good habit and being in the right spot. You go to the right spot, good things happen.”
This was the classic ‘trap’ game, as the Stars faced a Toronto squad that entered the day with the NHL’s worst record at 1-7-1, although they were coming off their first victory in Anaheim on Monday.
Goaltender Marty Turco had to be sharp and he was, making a season-high 33 saves, including 24 through the first two periods.
In addition to his game-winner, Neal also added an assist, while linemate Brad Richards scored two goals. Mike Ribeiro recorded the tying goal with 2:45 left in the third period and also picked up an assist, while defenseman Matt Niskanen collected two assists.
“It feels good to go to overtime and win and not have to go to that shootout, because we’ve been there a few times and didn’t win,” said Ribeiro, referencing the club’s 0-3 record in the shootout. “To finish that, I think we played really well through the third period and overtime, I think we dominated. Richie’s line played a great game and Marty made the big saves at the right time, so it was a big team win.”
Heading into the final period tied 1-1, the Stars jumped on top after capitalizing on a 5-on-3 power play opportunity. After Mike Komisarek went off for a phantom high-stick on Ribeiro, Dallas had a two-man advantage for 55 seconds, but would only need 20, as Richards bombed a one-timer from the top of the left face-off circle over Gustavsson’s shoulder at 1:52.
Still on the power play, Dallas nearly got another one a minute and a half later, but Gustavsson stoned them. First he made a spectacular sprawling save on Ribeiro’s wrist shot from the right face-off circle, then during a mad scramble for the loose puck in front, managed to stop Brenden Morrow’s poke at the rebound. The puck then spit out into the slot, where Trevor Daley drilled it towards the net but it was blocked in front.
Once again, the Maple Leafs responded soon afterwards, this time connecting on a power play of their own less than six minutes later. With Morrow feeling shame in the penalty box for holding, Jason Blake slid a nice cross-ice pass to Lee Stempniak in the left circle and Stempniak unleashed a blistering one-timer that beat Turco at 7:42.
Toronto went up 3-2 with 6:49 left in regulation on Nikolai Kulemin’s second goal of the game - and season. Turco made a routine save with his blocker on a long wrist shot by Blake off the rush, but left a rebound out front, allowing Kulemin to poke it over Turco as he was leveled by defenseman Nicklas Grossman. Blake ended the night with three assists.
With the clock ticking down, Dallas ratcheted up the pressure and nearly tied it with 5:03 remaining when Morrow’s waist-high deflection off Robidas’ long wrist shot sailed just wide.
The Stars did get the equalizer with 2:45 to go in regulation when Ribeiro collected his fourth of the season. Rookie Jamie Benn curled along the right sideboards out towards the blue line before launching a wrist shot that Ribeiro, stationed in the high slot, re-directed out of mid-air over Gustavsson’s shoulder.
“Benn came up, he didn’t have much, he couldn’t cycle the puck back, I decided to stay in the middle,” Ribeiro said of the play. “With two or three minutes left, it’s a good play from him to just throw it at the net and I was just at the right place to tip that puck and it went right in the corner. It was a big goal.”
Morrow also picked up an assist on the play for his 400th career point.
Dallas had a golden opportunity to end it less than a minute into OT, but Gustavsson made a nice pad save on Loui Eriksson’s backhander from in front.
Turco returned the favor at the other end of the ice about a minute later when he denied Francois Beauchemin’s point-blank backhander.
“It shows the character of this team to come back,” Neal said. “They score with six minutes left, kind of takes the energy out of our sails, but we managed to come back on a big goal by Ribs and we won it in OT, so it’s a big win for our team.”
“It was a phantom call that led to their 5-on-3,” Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. “We found a way to persevere through that and got the lead. Ribeiro made a skill-guy deflection - it was kind of lucky that it found its way into the top corner.”
After getting outplayed for much of the first period, as the Maple Leafs piled up eight straight shots on goal to finish with a 10-2 edge, the Stars still headed into the second maintaining the scoreless tie, thanks primarily to Turco.
Toronto continued their strong play early in the second, taking the first three shots of the period, while Leafs rookie Viktor Stalberg even beat Turco with a wrist shot from the top of the right face-off circle just 25 seconds in, but it clanked off the near-side goalpost.
“Early in the game, we had a great performance from Marty - he held us in it in the first period,” said Crawford, who was coaching his 999th career game. “You get through the first period where you haven’t played well, it’s the first game back after a long road trip, and it’s been a bit of a layoff. Those are periods where you want to make sure you get through, and we did.”
The Stars gradually picked up their play as the second wore on and began pressuring Gustavsson, who made a fabulous save on Ribeiro’s one-timer in front with 6:27 remaining.
Dallas then got on the scoreboard first as Richards scored his first of the night at 15:13 from behind the net. After Gustavsson made a blocker save at the right post off Neal’s sharp-angle shot, the puck ricocheted off the back boards to Richards behind the net on the left side. Richards then attempted a pass out front, but the puck banked off Leaf defenseman Ian White’s skate in the crease and trickled over the line.
The Stars’ lead was short-lived, however, as the Maple Leafs responded just 1:47 later on another shot from behind the goal line. Kulemin collected his first goal when he retrieved a puck behind the Dallas net and his wrap-around shot at the right post squeezed under Turco’s pads and in to tie it 1-1.
The Stars continue a mini-homestand Friday night when they host the Florida Panthers (7:30 pm, FSSW), another team struggling with a 2-6-1 record, second-last in the Eastern Conference behind Toronto.
“It’s hard to play against teams like that,” Ribeiro said. “They’re a quick team, they pass the puck real good, and I think mentally, you need to prepare yourself better for those games. You look at their standing and mentally, sometimes, you get off what you need to do and Friday’s going to be the same thing, so we need to be ready for that and have better starts.”
- With his two points, Neal set a new career-high by extending his scoring streak to four games, during which he’s registered seven points (four goals, three assists). He also made a diving shot block at the final buzzer in regulation to help send the contest into overtime.
- With his two goals, Richards now has six points (two goals, four assists) in his last three outings. Despite missing two games due to injury, he leads the club in scoring with 15 points (five goals, 10 assists). He also led the squad with five shots on goal.
- Niskanen, who returned to the lineup after sitting out two games with a head injury, doubled his season output with his two assists.
- Ribeiro’s two points came after he registered just one assist in his previous four games.
- Robidas’ assist on the game-winner was his fifth of the season. He also led the Stars in ice time, logging 26:15.
- With center Steve Ott serving the first contest of his two-game suspension for a low hit against St. Louis’ Carlo Colaiacovo Saturday, winger Francis Wathier skated in his second NHL game after his recall from the AHL Texas Stars, getting on the ice for nine shifts or 6:25.
- Former Stars winger Niklas Hagman, who signed with Toronto as a free agent before last season, returned to the American Airlines Center for the first time as an opponent. Hagman, who spent two and a half years with the Stars from 2005-08, had scored four goals in his previous three games but did not register a point. He fired four shots on goal and ended the night with a -3 plus/minus.
“Obviously, the result wasn’t what we wanted, but other than that, it was fun to come back,” Hagman acknowledged. “It’s been a while, but still, there are a lot of players (that were teammates). Obviously, it was a little bit special.”
- The Stars’ two shots on goal in the first period marked a season-low for a single period.
- Dallas went 1-for-3 on the power play after connecting on just 2-of-26 man advantage opportunities over their six previous games.
- After struggling early in the season on the penalty kill, the Stars have now killed off 23-of-27 (85.2 percent) opposition power plays over the last seven outings.
Wrist shot -
1 - 0 DAL
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 DAL
2 - 2 Tie
Backhand shot -