SUNRISE - With all due respect to James Neal, Kari Lehtonen is showing the Dallas Stars why he should also be considered as the real deal.
Lehtonen again proved that Dallas' goaltending is in good hands, finishing with 27 saves in the Stars efficient 4-1 thumping of the Florida Panthers at BankAtlantic Center on Thursday night.
Tom Wandell added a pair of goals to set a new career-high, Steve Ott and Neal also scored, and Jamie Benn collected three assists in his return to the lineup for a streaking Stars team that has won five of their first six games.
There was no shortage of effort in a game that was as close to perfect as can be. The Stars bounced back and killed off all three of Florida's power plays three days after the Tampa Bay Lightning lit up Dallas' penalty killing unit for four goals in five man advantage opportunities in a 5-4 loss. The Stars also outshot an opponent for the first time this season.
Impressively, this came against the stingiest defense in the league, as the Panthers came in yielding a league-low five goals over their first four games.
"It wasn't a great outing in Tampa," center Brad Richards said. "We talked about it as a group, players alone and staff alone, and we all knew that we needed a bounce-back game. So it was good."
It's been more than good for the Stars, whose 5-1-0 mark, is just off the franchise's best record after six games. The 1996-97 edition went a perfect 6-0-0.
"We've been able to start well, and that's been great," Lehtonen said. "I'm not going to say it's surprising. It's just that everybody's been working hard, and that's the result. It was a great bounce back from a very bad game in Tampa. We played really strong, so it was nice to be back there."
Lehtonen had been equally as strong in the first five games heading in, and it was no different in Game 6. After playing in only 12 games upon his arrival in Dallas following a trade with Atlanta in February largely because of his continued recovery from early-season back surgery, Lehtonen has anchored the team's red-hot start this season.
Against the Panthers he again made effective saves, and didn't bumble the rebounds.
With less than seven minutes to go Lehtonen made a spectacular save on Michael Frolik after Frolik corralled the puck at the left post and was staring at a gaping net. Lehtonen promptly slid to his left to thwart the attempt.
Stephen Weiss, though, spoiled Lehtonen's shutout bid with 3:06 to go, deflecting a shot in front after Frolik sent the puck to the net from the hash marks along the left boards.
Lehtonen was aided by a renewed focus by the Stars in the defensive end after surrendering over 40 shots in three of the first five games. Dallas held Florida, which scored six times in its last game against the Lightning, to a mere six shots in the pivotal second period when the Stars doubled their 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Neal and Wandell. Overall, Dallas outshot the Panthers by a 29-28 margin.
"(Kari) just did what he's been doing. He's just been solid," Richards said. We didn't give up 45 shots, we got the lead, and we played with the lead. We would have liked to have gotten him the shutout, but it was good."
The Stars gladly welcomed back Benn, who had missed the past three games because of concussion-like systems after being hit by New York Islanders defenseman James Wisniewski. Benn showed no ill-effects of the elongated layoff in recording a career-high three helpers.
The line of Ott, Benn, and Wandell accounted for six points.
"It's a very skilled line," Wandell said. "Hopefully we keep playing next game."
Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun, who had registered shutouts in each of his last two starts, was pulled after the first 40 minutes after allowing four goals on 23 shots. Scott Clemmensen made six saves in relief.
With a 2-0 lead after the first 20 minutes, the Stars stretched the advantage to 3-0 on Neal's fourth goal of the season at 8:09 of the second period. On a 3-on-2 rush, Loui Eriksson slipped a pass just inside the Florida blue line to Neal, who was in the middle of the ice. Neal then quickly whipped a snap shot that squirted between Vokoun's legs as he was going down into the butterfly.
Wandell then notched his second of the game with 34 seconds left in the second to make it 4-0. Gathering the puck along the left boards at the Florida blue line, Wandell skated along the boards and around the net until turning and shooting a shot from the right faceoff dot that eluded a stunned Vokoun.
"We had a good start, and threw some pucks at the net," Wandell said. "We had some speed out there and got going in the second period. I was very happy with our performance in this game."
The Stars grabbed a 1-0 lead when Ott scored his first of the season with 3:04 left in the opening stanza. Benn's shot from the left circle was stopped by Vokoun, but the hefty rebound popped out to a driving Ott in the slot, and Ott promptly shoveled it home on the backhand.
The goal snapped Vokoun's 142 minute, 4 second shutout string.
Dallas pushed the lead to 2-0 on Wandell's first of the season with just 20.1 second left in the first. Vokoun once again made the initial stop by blocking Karlis Skrastins' slap shot from the left point, but Wandell easily put in the rebound while standing to the left of the Florida netminder.
The Stars return to Dallas to start a six-game homestand on Saturday against Nashville (7:00, TXA21). It's the second-longest home stretch this season. They'll play seven straight at American Airlines Center in March.
-- The Stars and Panthers have met just 24 times, the second fewest against one team in Stars history. They've played the Atlanta Thrashers on 12 occasions.
-- Adam Burish and Florida defenseman Dennis Wideman exchanged punches in the first period after Wideman threw an elbow to the face of center Mike Ribeiro. Wideman didn't get a penalty for the elbow, while Burish received an extra two minutes for instigating. It was Dallas' first major for fighting penalty this season.
-- Lehtonen now has 13 career wins over the Panthers (13-5-4), the highest win total against any team. He also has four shutouts as well versus Florida.
-- Skrastins' assist was the 100th of his NHL career.
-- Neal has scored in four straight games.
-- Richards didn't pick up a point for the first time this year.
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