DALLAS - It turned out to be a lot more dramatic than it probably needed to be, but in the end, the Dallas Stars were able to pull out a victory and that’s all that really matters.
Loui Eriksson and Matt Niskanen each scored a goal and an assist and Brad Richards collected three assists as the Stars built up a 4-0 second period lead before holding on for a 4-3 triumph over the Minnesota Wild Monday night at the American Airlines Center.
It was the Stars’ second win in a row - both at home - following a 1-6-0 slump, lifting them out of a tie in the Western Conference standings with the Wild and Anaheim for 10th place, although they still trail eighth-place Los Angeles by four points.
The home victory leaves them with a stellar 11-2-2 mark in their last 15 contests at the American Airlines Center, while sending the Wild to their fifth straight loss on the road.
“It’s a good win,” said Richards. “I think we played pretty solid for probably 50 minutes or so and we had a couple of mistakes, but that’s going to happen. There’s another team out there, and we found a way to keep them from getting the tying goal. It’s another win.”
Mike Modano and Tom Wandell also scored for Dallas, which seemed to be rolling along with a four-goal lead late in the second period before Minnesota mounted a nerve-wracking comeback bid, led by former Star Antti Miettinen’s two goals and an assist.
But after Mikko Koivu pulled the Wild to within 4-3 with five minutes remaining in the third period, the Stars clamped down and resumed an aggressive forecheck that helped them clinch the triumph.
“It was a pretty complete effort, and I liked the last five minutes,” coach Marc Crawford said. “We did slip a little bit, but oftentimes when you’re protecting the lead, you sometimes get a little bit off the things that made us so successful. Our forecheck was terrific again tonight. We really did a terrific job of getting bodies in and finish body checks early in the game.”
“Obviously you don’t want to let the team come back in the game like that, but the positive thing is we still ended up winning the game,” said defenseman Stephane Robidas, who led the team in ice time, as usual, with 22:39. “I think that’s the thing we’ve got to start building on and try to correct a few mistakes that we had, and build on the good things that we did, and go from there.”
Alex Auld made his second straight start in goal for the Stars, in his 200th career NHL contest, and was sharp once again, making 22 saves to improve his record to 7-4-3 on the season.
“It’s just more of the same,” Auld, who won his fourth straight home game, said of his performance. “I thought I was seeing the puck well tonight and the guys did a good job eliminating second chances, and they didn’t get a whole lot of Grade A scoring chances and that’s the way we want to play. We really want to limit what the other team gets and make them really earn it and work for it.”
“He’s played very well,” Crawford said of Auld. “I thought early in the game he made a couple of solid saves. He didn’t have to be great in the first period, but he was solid. He moved the puck well tonight, which was good because they were forced to dump it in. He’s playing with some confidence right now. We will most likely ride his goaltending here into the next game. We’re pleased for him, and it’s a night to get on a little bit of a roll.”
The Stars came roaring out of the starting gates, jumping on top just 4:57 in on Wandell’s fifth goal of the season. After taking a pass from Fabian Brunnstrom at center ice, Wandell sped across the blue line and evaded Minnesota defenseman John Scott before firing a quick wrist shot up and over Wild starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom and in.
The Stars kept the pressure on, but Backstrom was strong early. He stopped Brian Sutherby’s slap shot from the left sideboards at 9:30, then made a fabulous save on Jamie Benn’s rebound backhander in front.
Backstrom also made a sparkling glove save on Toby Petersen’s point-blank wrist shot with 8:21 left in the period, and then denied Karlis Skrastins’ wrist shot from the slot 15 seconds later.
At the other end of the ice, Auld came up big, denying Kyle Brodziak’s in-close chance with 4:31 remaining, then snagging a wrist shot from the left face-off circle by Guillaume Latendresse, who was just named the NHL’s third star of the week, with 2:01 left.
Leading 1-0 heading into the second period, the Stars scored two goals within 2:40 of each other to balloon that advantage to three.
On the power play after Petr Sykora’s hooking penalty at 4:34, Richards drilled a slap shot from the left point that clanked off the near goalpost, then 24 seconds later, set up Modano for a 2-0 Dallas lead. Richards fed a cross-ice pass from the left point to Modano in the right circle, and the 21-year veteran finessed a nice wrist shot over the diving Backstrom for his eighth goal of the season.
The Stars struck again at 7:42 when Eriksson notched his team-leading 20th goal of the year. Richards set this one up as well, sending a sweet backhand pass from the right corner to Eriksson in front. Eriksson then made a quick move to his backhand and lifted the puck over Backstrom’s pad and in.
Dallas pushed the lead to 4-0 on Niskanen’s second of the season at 13:37, after another nice pass from Richards. Set up behind the Minnesota net, Richards slid a pass out to Niskanen in the high slot, where the Minnesota native launched a wrist shot that beat Backstrom to the glove side.
That goal meant the end of Backstrom’s night after he surrendered four goals on 15 shots, as Wild coach Todd Richards inserted backup Josh Harding in his place.
Minnesota scored on their first power play of the night to snap Auld’s shutout bid, as Miettinen scored his first of two on the night at 15:03. Miettinen cruised across the front of the net and executed a nifty deflection on Martin Havlat’s wrist shot from the left circle, beating Auld just inside the left post.
Dallas nearly restored their four-goal lead with under a minute to go in the period when Steve Ott’s backhander in front popped up in the air, off Harding’s blocker and down in the crease, before bouncing off the right post. Wild defenseman Nick Schultz dove behind Harding to swat the puck out of the crease before all heck broke loose.
After the play, Ott ended up on top of Harding, and Harding punched Ott with his blocker to get him off. Both men got back to their skates and exchanged a few punches before everyone else on the ice converged for an all-out shoving match.
“He was laying on top of me and I wanted him off,” Harding said of the altercation. “He’s a competitor and everyone knows that and he’ll stick up for himself and I thought I had to stand up for myself. Nothing became of it, we got a power play out of it, it’s too bad we didn’t score.”
With a 4-1 lead going into the final period, the Stars seemed to be in control, although they first had to kill off the remaining 1:11 from Ott’s goaltender interference penalty. When they did, it marked the first time in three games they had successfully nullified an opposition power play, having allowed four straight power play goals.
They even killed off another one later in the period to finish the night 2-for-3 on the PK.
Richards nearly scored himself with 8:55 remaining in regulation when he faked Harding to the ice and tried to slide it around him from in deep, but it pinged off the side of the net.
The Wild got another one to close the gap to 4-2 with 7:24 left on Miettinen’s second of the night and 13th of the year. Owen Nolan carried the puck into the Dallas zone and then slid a cross-ice pass to Miettinen charging down the slot, where the Finnish Olympian lunged to re-direct it over Auld’s glove, off the underside of the crossbar and in.
The 16,302 Dallas fans felt their collars tighten a bit when Koivu scored just 2:24 later to make it 4-3. The play started when Auld stopped Kim Johnsson’s wrist shot from the slot, but left a rebound that Andrew Brunette slid wide of the right post. Miettinen then retrieved the puck behind the net and flung a quick pass out past the left post to Koivu in front, and Koivu buried it past the scrambling Auld.
But while it may have seemed like the Stars were crumbling, they just stiffened their resolved and amped up their aggressive fore-checking style to hem the Wild in their own zone over the last few minutes and even generated a few scoring chances of their own.
Harding came up with important saves on Petersen and Modano with four minutes left, while Auld denied Nolan’s wrister from the right circle through a screen with 2:30 to go.
The Stars pressure prevented the Wild from pulling Harding for an extra attacker until just 50 seconds were left, but even after that, Minnesota was really unable threaten.
“We stayed with it, competed hard, played real smart the last five minutes of the game and Auldie shut the door,” Niskanen said. “That’s a big win for us - two big wins in a row on home ice. It’s something to build on, our game’s coming, I think, we just have to find a way to win some games on the road now.”
After going 2-0-0 over their mini two-game homestand, the Stars head back out on the road, where they have lost six in a row and are 1-9-3 in their last 13. First up on the three-game trip is a visit to Vancouver to face the Canucks Thursday night (9:00 pm start, FSSW), where they hope to erase their recent struggles away from home.
“We’ve talked about it 100 times, we can keep talking about it. We know what we have to do, we’ve just got to do it,” Richards said of the disparity in the club’s play on the road vs. at home. “We’ve got to put it out on the ice. We’ve played well at home throughout the last month here. We feel confident coming in here at home. Now we’ve got to bring that confidence and attitude - it’s a lot harder on the road. Teams are really buckling down now and points are very tough to come by on the road, and it’s going to be another battle.”
As Crawford alluded to, Auld will probably be in net again, and he welcomes the opportunity to get some extended playing time and kick off a Stars surge.
“I just want to help the team win games,” Auld said. “It’s sort of been my goal, right from the start, when I’m playing, I want to give the team as good a chance as possible to win and make it difficult when they have to make decisions, but at the same time it’s a team game and you want to put that team first and put everything aside. I just want to keep playing and playing well.”
- Eriksson scored for the second game in a row and now has eight in his last 11 outings, along with four assists. His four shots on goal were second only to Benn’s five on the club.
- Richards now has nine points (three goals, six assists) in his last seven games.
- Niskanen’s goal was his first since Nov. 18, a span of 26 games, and with his assist, he notched his first multi-point game of the season after registering just one assist in his previous 23 outings. He now has four career goals (and two assists) against the team from his native state in 10 games. He has 11 goals in 194 career contests against other teams. “I don’t know why it really happens, but I guess there is that little extra motivation knowing that everyone back home can watch the game,” Niskanen said of his success against Minnesota.
- Wandell’s goal was his first since Nov. 28, a span of 22 games. He now has points (one goal, one assist) in consecutive games after going the previous 10 without any and the previous 21 with just one assist.
- Modano’s goal was his second in the last three games following a six-game point drought. It was also the 551st of his career, 25th on the NHL’s all-time list.
- Brunnstrom’s assist on Wandell’s goal was his first since Oct. 31, a span of 11 games played.
- Winger Ray Sawada made his season debut after getting recalled from the AHL Texas Stars on Sunday. Sawada, who played five games last season, registered a shot on goal and four hits in 7:25 of ice time.
- Defenseman Nicklas Grossman, who had missed the previous five games with a lower body injury, returned to the lineup and provided a stabilizing force in the defensive zone. He logged 18:48 of ice time, delivering five hits and blocking one shot.
- Both captain Brenden Morrow and veteran winger Jere Lehtinen sat out the contest with upper body injuries suffered Saturday afternoon. Each is listed as day-to-day.
- The Stars went 1-for-4 on the power play, their third straight game with a man-advantage goal. Over those three games, they are 3-for-10 after going 0-for-22 in the previous six outings.
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