DENVER - The circumstances were far from ideal, but this was far from the way the Dallas Stars wanted to return from their Christmas break.
Following two days off for the holiday, Dallas ran into a hot goalie and two goals from Chris Stewart helped the upstart Colorado Avalanche defeat the Stars 4-1 at the Pepsi Center Saturday night.
The loss leaves Dallas 16-11-11 on the season and tied with Detroit for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings, while the Avs, who finished last in the West last season, are now 5-2-0 in their last seven and lead the Northwest Division.
After the NHL’s mandated two-day break, which dictates that teams don’t play, practice or travel over the holiday, the Stars flew into Colorado earlier in the day and had a difficult adjustment to the unusual routine, not to mention the high-altitude.
Steve Ott scored the club’s only goal at 7:44 of the third period to pull the Stars to within 2-1, but they were unable to complete the comeback, as Avalanche netminder Peter Budaj was outstanding, turning aside 39 Dallas shots, including 17 in the third period alone
“Pretty brutal,” center Mike Modano said, regarding the Stars’ situation. “The air is thin, the ice is bad and coming in this morning, getting up early, travel-wise, it wasn’t ideal, but it is what it is.”
With Marty Turco experiencing ‘flu-like symptoms,’ Alex Auld got his second straight start in goal. Two days after a 33-save gem in a win over Columbus, Auld wasn’t quite as sparkling on this night, but still put up a solid performance, making 29 saves.
The Avalanche got on the scoreboard first when Chris Durno notched his first NHL goal at 6:04. Durno, in his 15th big league contest, controlled the puck behind the net and on a wraparound attempt, managed to bank the puck off the leg of Dallas defenseman Maxime Fortunus, off Auld’s stick and just over the goal line to make it 1-0.
Auld came up big midway through the period, stopping Stewart’s slap shot from the left face-off circle, then denying Wojtek Wolski’s rebound attempt in front.
The Stars had a golden opportunity to tie it with 1:20 left in the period, but after receiving a nice pass from Karlis Skrastins and facing an open net, James Neal fired a wrist shot just over the crossbar.
Colorado outshot Dallas 14-10 through the opening period and took a 1-0 lead into the second.
The Stars picked up the tempo early in the second and outshot Colorado 3-0 through the first seven minutes, culminating with a flurry of pressure around Budaj after he stopped Brad Richards’ wrist shot in front.
Unfortunately for Dallas, they ended up taking a couple of penalties and were short two men for 44 seconds after Nicklas Grossman was whistled for slashing at 8:30, but the Stars were able to kill it off without even surrendering a shot.
The Stars did not get the expected boost from the big kill and not long afterwards, Colorado increased their lead.
Just seconds after registering their first shot of the period, Colorado jumped ahead by two on Milan Hejduk’s 15th goal of the year at 14:04. After rookie Matt Duchene fed him a nice pass from behind the net, Hejduk beat Auld with a wrist shot in front to make it 2-0.
The Stars pushed back again later in the period, but Budaj came up with some impressive saves, denying Steve Ott in front with 2:49 left and then Jeff Woywitka in the slot 15 seconds later.
The Avalanche nearly went up by three with 1:30 to go in the second when Cody McLeod blew past Matt Niskanen in the neutral zone and raced in on a breakaway. That forced Niskanen to take a slashing penalty in pursuit, but once again, the Stars killed off the resulting Colorado power play.
So despite outshooting the Avalanche 13-6 in the second, the Stars still entered the final period trailing by two.
“We had some pressure there in the second, had some opportunities, but they got one back there to make it a two-goal lead,” Modano said.
Dallas had a big chance to cut the deficit to one 3:36 into the third, but Budaj denied them. Just seconds after Auld stopped Paul Stastny at the other end, the Stars sped into the Colorado zone on a 4-on-1 rush, with Modano feeding Woywitka in the right circle, but Budaj made a big save on his wrist shot.
The Stars did get one back at 7:44 when Ott connected for his fifth goal of the season, beating Budaj with a backhander from the slot after Mike Ribeiro’s pass pinged off Jere Lehtinen’s leg right to Ott.
Dallas had some momentum after that and continued to press in the offensive zone, but it was Colorado who got the next goal. With the Stars pressing offensively, the Avalanche raced into the Dallas zone on a 2-on-1 rush, and after receiving a nice pass from Stastny, Stewart beat Auld with a wrist shot from the slot with 6:26 remaining to restore the Avs’ two-goal lead.
The Stars responded with more sustained offensive pressure, but could not get another puck past Budaj. Grossman even clanked a shot off the goalpost from the point with 4:39 to go.
Budaj then thwarted Skrastins’ blast from the point with 2:25 left and made an even better save on Jamie Benn’s rebound chance in front.
With about two minutes left, Dallas pulled Auld for an extra attacker, but that only resulted in Stewart finding the empty net with 58 seconds remaining to seal the deal for Colorado.
The Stars now return home to face another Western Conference division leader, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Tuesday night (7:00 pm start, VERSUS) at the American Airlines Center. Dallas beat the ‘Hawks 4-3 in Chicago back on Oct. 17 in their only other meeting so far this season.
- Ott’s goal gives him five points (three goals, two assists) in his last 11 games after going 13 contests without any.
- Woywitka led the Stars with a career-high six shots on goal.
- Neal registered a -4 plus/minus rating on the night, while Richards and winger Loui Eriksson were -3. Eriksson saw his career-high eight-game scoring streak, during which he compiled three goals and 12 points, come to an end.
- Defenseman Stephane Robidas, as usual, led the club in ice time, logging an impressive 28:01, while also topping the Stars with five blocked shots.
- Stars captain Brenden Morrow, who had registered one assist in his last four contests, sat out the game with ‘flu-like symptoms.’
- Lehtinen took his place in the lineup, returning from a two-game absence due to a hip/groin injury. The game marked Lehtinen’s 839th career outing, tying him with Sergei Zubov for third on the franchise all-time games-played list. Lehtinen’s assist on Ott’s goal gives him four points (one goal, three assists) in the last five games he’s played in.
- The Stars penalty killing unit nullified all three Colorado power plays on the night, including a 46-second 5-on-3. They have now killed all nine opposition power plays over the last four games after allowing six goals on nine opportunities in the previous two.
1 - 0 COL
2 - 0 COL
2 - 1 COL
3 - 1 COL