DALLAS - It appears that the Olympic break came at the worst time for the Dallas Stars.
For the second game after the resumption of the NHL season, the Stars were embarrassed on home ice, dropping a 6-1 decision to the St. Louis Blues Thursday night at the American Airlines Center.
After finally finding their game and playing their best hockey, going 9-4-1 in the 14 games heading into the two-week layoff, the Stars have struggled since, losing their two games by a combined score of 11-2. Entering the day 10th in the Western Conference standings just two points back of the eighth and final playoff spot, the Stars fell to 11th as the Blues leap-frogged them with the win.
“I don’t want to blame it on the break,” said defenseman Stephane Robidas, who led the Stars with six hits, but also recorded a -3 plus/minus rating. “We should have come back from that break rejuvenated and full of energy and that’s not the case. Those two games have been a big slap in the face.”
“We’re definitely not in the position we thought we’d be in going into the break,” said center Brad Richards, who earned an assist on the Stars’ only goal, by Loui Eriksson. “We were on a high and playing well. But obviously, we’ve let that slip. That’s our job, no one else’s, especially our leadership group here to grab it now before it’s too late. We got some help the other night. We’re not out of it, but it’s going to be a tougher road every day that goes by.”
Stars coach Marc Crawford admitted that the recent results have him a little worried.
“I’m concerned, for sure,” Crawford said. “Percentage-wise, it’s as high as it’s been with the group. I do think that when things go bad like they have the last couple of games, you need to stay tight and come back to the core of what you do well. We’ve obviously gotten a long way away from our core, with our play in our defensive zone. Our defensive play has usually been the hallmark of what we do. We’re not playing great in that area right now. It’s been exposed a little bit by some goals that have gone in that haven’t been the greatest goals. We’ve been very lax in some areas of our coverage, and they exposed us tonight.”
Despite dropping the last two, the Stars are still 10-4-0 in their last 14 at home, while the Blues extended their current winning streak to five, a span in which they’ve outscored their opponents 22-9.
St. Louis broke open a 1-1 game with goals 17 seconds apart late in the first period, and when they scored again early in the second, it was a hole that was just too deep for the Stars to dig their way out of.
Paul Kariya scored two goals and one assist, while Alexander Steen added a goal and assist for the victorious Blues. Netminder Chris Mason was also outstanding, making 29 saves to stymie the Stars’ offense.
After surrendering five goals on just 22 shots Tuesday night against Los Angeles, goaltender Marty Turco lasted just 21:50 this time, giving up four goals on 11 shots before being replaced by the recently-acquired Kari Lehtonen.
In his first game of the season and first in a Dallas uniform, Lehtonen made 14 saves on 16 shots in 38:10 of ice time, but it was too late for the Stars to pull any points out of it. Still, he did get some game action under his belt and felt that would help him moving forward.
“It was exciting. It was not the way I’d like things to start, but it felt fine, and I kind of got into it,” Lehtonen said of his surgically-repaired back. “Now I feel a lot more comfortable, but it wasn’t too much fun there after 4-1. For sure, I’m going to be more comfortable next time when I get out there. Of course, the other team started not playing that hard anymore when they had a good lead.”
“I thought he was fine,” Crawford said of Lehtonen. “I thought he looked good. In the third, he
had to face some real good chances. He’s a big goaltender, butterfly guy, fills up a lot of the net. I think it’s positive that he got those important minutes for him.”
Turco started off on the right foot, with the Blues on an early power play, coming up with a big sliding save on Steen’s one-timer from the right point, 5:25 into the opening period.
Things heated up a bit at the 7:57 mark when Krys Barch squared off with St. Louis enforcer D.J. King for a spirited fight that lifted the American Airlines Center crowd of 17,132 out of their seats.
St. Louis jumped on top at 9:28 on Kariya’s first goal of the night. Carrying the puck into the Dallas zone, Kariya pulled up in the right face-off circle and fired a wrist shot that beat a screened Turco inside the far post.
Dallas nearly tied it just 44 seconds later when Eriksson raced in on a breakaway, but Mason made a nice save on Eriksson’s wrist shot from the slot.
Rookie Jamie Benn’s first NHL regular season fight got the crowd going again at 12:18 of the first, especially when he leveled the Blues’ Erik Johnson with a flurry of punches
The Stars evened it up with 4:44 left in the period on Eriksson’s 24th goal of the year. James Neal set it up by carrying the puck around the Blues’ net and sliding a slick pass out front across the grain to Eriksson, who slammed it home into the open side of the net.
The Blues responded quickly to restored their lead, with Brad Boyes picking up with 12th goal to make it 2-1 with 2:32 remaining. After receiving a pass from behind the net by Steen, Boyes unleashed a scorching snap shot just under the crossbar.
Kariya notched his second of the night and 14th of the season just 17 seconds later to give St. Louis a two-goal lead. Leading the rush into the Dallas zone, Kariya boomed a slap shot from the top of the right circle that Turco got a piece of with his glove, but it still bounced over the goal line and in.
Trailing 3-1 heading into the second period, the Stars fell behind by three just 1:50 in after Steen’s laser beam wrist shot from the left circle beat Turco over the shoulder for his 15th goal.
At that point, Crawford opted to pull Turco and insert Lehtonen for his Stars debut.
The move seemed to spark the Stars a little as Mike Ribeiro burst through the St. Louis defense while 1-on-3 for a dangerous snap shot from the slot, but Mason made a nice blocker save. Ribeiro also drew a penalty on the play, and the Stars threatened on the ensuing power play, but were unable to solve Mason.
Mason made another big save on the Stars’ third power play of the period with 8:10 left, when he denied Neal’s deflection in front.
Dallas had another golden opportunity when Brad Richards set up Eriksson for a point-blank re-direct in front, but Mason made a huge lunging blocker save with 4:27 to go in the second.
“We didn’t get a payoff for our good work in the second period and it seemed like that frustrated us,” Crawford said of the period in which Dallas outshot the Blues 9-6. “There’s no room for frustration for us. I understand the emotion, I understand sometimes why it happens, but there’s no room for it.”
Less than four minutes into the final period, the Blues got a breakaway after Andy McDonald blocked a shot by Mark Fistric at the St. Louis blue line and sped in on Lehtonen before shooting wide.
Seconds later, still controlling the puck in the Dallas zone, the Blues made it a 5-1 game on Patrick Berglund’s 10th goal of the year. After Lehtonen made a sparkling pad save on McDonald’s snap shot from the slot, David Perron picked up the rebound and fed a quick pass across the top of the crease to a wide open Berglund, who popped it into the open side of the net.
T.J. Oshie netted the final goal of the game with 6:02 remaining, on a fluke goal that ricocheted off Robidas’ skate and under Lehtonen to make it 6-1.
Robidas almost got one back with 4:42 to go on a power play, when his booming one-timer from the top of the left circle clanked off the inside of the left goalpost.
“There’s no magic formula right now to refocus,” Richards said. “If we can’t do that, then we’re done. Whether it’s on the road or anywhere, we’re down under 20 games. These outings can’t happen anymore.”
The Stars now head out on a three-game road trip now, beginning Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh against Team Canada hero Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins (12 noon start, FSSW). After seeming to exorcize their road demons before the Olympic break with a 2-0-1 trip, the Stars hope to keep that success going.
“I think we’ve got to go one game at a time,” Robidas said. “We got to learn from those two games that we played here at home where we didn’t play well, we got to learn from it and start with the first one in Pittsburgh, afternoon game, and just focus on that one and just go one at a time. That’s all we can do.”
“It’s correctable, we know it’s correctable, we know we’re better than we’re showing,” Crawford said. “We’ve got some good character in the room and they’re going to have to suck it up now. That’s the cure for everything, you suck it up and you stick together.”
- Eriksson’s 24th goal tied Neal for the team lead and snapped a three-game point drought.
- Neal’s assist also broke a three-game pointless skid. He led all Stars with five shots on goal.
- Richards’ assist gives him nine points (two goals, seven assists) in his last eight contests.
- Turco was honored in a special ceremony before the game for playing in his 500th career contest on Tuesday, becoming just the fourth NHL goaltender to reach that total playing for just one organization.
- Rugged defenseman Mark Fistric returned to the lineup after missing five games with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. He led the squad with four blocked shots while logging 17:26 of ice time.