COLUMBUS - A thin middle is what many adults strive to have. If you're the Stars, thin is definitely not in when it comes to the middle of the ice.
Playing without three starting centers after Mike Modano was scratched because of a lower-body injury, the Stars road woes continued in a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night at Nationwide Arena.
Brad Richards scored the lone late goal for Dallas, which has mustered just one win in its last 13 games away from home (1-10-2).
"All year the road's been a nemesis," distraught goalie Marty Turco said. "Tonight's game isn't going to give us any confidence. We weren't intense enough, in my mind, finishing checks and doing the little things."
Modano had been carrying a bigger share of the load as of late with Mike Ribeiro and Tom Wandell out with injuries, accumulating seven goals in his last 10 games. But the highest scoring American-born player wasn't able to go against the Blue Jackets, leaving Brad Richards, converted wingers Jamie Benn and Toby Petersen and fourth-liner Warren Peters to pick up the slack.
Richards played a whopping 24 minutes, and the four centermen combined for 10 shots, but they were unable to help the Stars from squandering their game in hand on Calgary and Detroit. With the loss, Dallas failed to pull within a point of those two teams that occupy the eighth and ninth spots, respectively, in the Western Conference standings.
Turco, making his second straight start, was steady in net by making 24 saves.
"Everyone deals with (injuries)," coach Marc Crawford said. "We're not going to use it as an excuse. We've got to find a way. Opportunities are there for certain people. We needed everybody on deck, and we had a few guys that didn't play at the level they needed to play at. That's a little bit disparaging. But for the most part you can't argue with our effort because it was there."
The Blue Jackets were dealing with a bit of their own adversity after the firing of former Stars Stanley Cup-winning head coach Ken Hitchcock on Wednesday. After gaining a postseason berth for the first time in franchise history last year, the Blue Jackets have been mostly lethargic this year under Hitchcock's tutelage, and after a 12-6-2 start Columbus had won just three of the next 24 games.
The game matched that lethargy for the majority of time until the final 2 minutes of play when the Stars came to within a goal after Blue Jackets' forward R.J. Umberger whacked in an empty-net goal from his stomach with 68 seconds to go.
With 47 seconds to go, Richards was credited with Dallas' only tally with Turco off for an extra attacker. Richards' shot from the point went off a skate in front before catapulting high into the air, eventually crashing down in the crease and ultimately over the goal line.
After a 2-minute video review, the goal was confirmed and Dallas had some life. The Stars, though, were unable to get the equalizer, and were dealt their second straight road defeat.
"We've played some good games, don't get me wrong, and good enough to win," Turco said. "But collectively I've let in some bad goals, some bad plays, mistakes that end up costing us, and it ends up being something that we dwell on. We're going to have to earn our way out of it."
Down by a goal earlier in the third, the Stars were handed a pair of consecutive power-play opportunities with just under 10 minutes to go in regulation. But they were only able to must one shot on both chances combined, letting a golden chance pass by.
"We made a couple of good plays but didn't convert on them," Crawford said. "You'd like to have the wherewithal to be able to handle the moment in that situation, but it seemed like we had four guys going and maybe one guy not going on the power play. We needed a little bit more urgency, and that's where it really showed through, probably on those power plays."
Anton Stralman scored in the first period, and goalie Steve Mason finished with 22 saves in helping Columbus win for the third time in four meetings with Dallas this season.
Stralman notched his fifth of the season at the 15-minute mark of the opening period to give the Blue Jackets a 1-0 lead. After accepting a pass from Fredrik Modin from the right circle, Stralman unleashed a shot that eluded a screened Turco for a tally that stood as the only marker until Umberger's circus-like goal with just over a minute to play.
The Stars will return to Dallas for a game against Phoenix on Saturday at 5 p.m. (FSSW). It will be the second time in six days that the teams have met at American Airlines Center. The Coyotes got past the Stars, 4-2, on Jan. 31 for their third straight win over Dallas this season.
The Stars will play at Phoenix on Feb. 13, their final game before the Olympic break.
-- Right wing Raymond Sawada took the place of Modano, who's being listed as day-to-day after aggravating an old injury in Dallas' win ver Minnesota on Tuesday. Sawada was recalled from Texas of the AHL on Wednesday.