DALLAS - It was a wild and crazy night at the American Airlines Center Wednesday night.
With the rare visit of the Pittsburgh Penguins to town, the 15,637 in attendance were treated to a total of four fights, including two by mild Dallas Stars winger Jamie Benn and one by NHL superstar Sidney Crosby, as well as a penalty shot goal, a goal overturned by video review and a huge ovation for a couple of Texas Rangers players.
In the end, the Stars were propelled by an outstanding night from Loui Eriksson, who scored two goals and an assist, and emerged with a convincing 5-2 victory.
After dropping the first three games of their season-long six-game homestand by a combined score of 11-4, the Stars have now rebounded with two straight dominating victories, outscoring Buffalo and Pittsburgh 9-2 in the process. Dallas is now 7-4-0 on the year overall.
“It was another really strong outing for us and I think things are going in the right direction,” coach Marc Crawford said. “You build confidence when you get results and right now, our results are very positive. I thought we carried the play, we generated a lot of chances, and we had some superb performances.”
In addition to Eriksson’s heroics, defenseman Stephane Robidas contributed a goal and an assist, while Steve Ott and Brad Richards also found the back of the net. Facing two of the NHL’s top centers in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the top line of Richards, Eriksson and James Neal was exceptional.
“The top line was outstanding tonight, right from the get-go,” Crawford said. “They were strong with the puck, they made great plays. They were dominant. They seemed to be enthused about the match-up, whether it was Malkin or whether it was Crosby. Those guys are great players and we had three great players going on that line.”
Goaltender Kari Lehtonen was back in net after backup Andrew Raycroft stepped in and shutout Buffalo on Wednesday, and delivered another strong performance, making 21 saves, including a few big ones during a lengthy 5-on-3 disadvantage late in the first period.
“Kari was excellent,” Crawford said. “In the second period when they made it 2-1, he made a great save and we came down the other end and scored. On the 5-on-3, we closed down on a number of times to nullify shots at the side of the net.”
Much of the night’s craziness occurred in the second period, which began with the Stars holding a 2-0 lead and a 12-4 edge in shots. The Penguins cut the lead in half with a goal immediately following an offensive zone face-off when Tyler Kennedy scored at 6:20. After the puck dropped, Maxime Talbot and Mike Ribeiro tied each other up leaving a loose puck that Kennedy darted in and backhanded on net, squeezing it through a screened Lehtonen.
Lehtonen came up with a huge pad save on Talbot at 9:37 to keep the Stars ahead, robbing his uncontested rebound chance from the left circle.
Just over a minute later, infused with the momentum from that save, the Stars made it 3-1 on Ott’s third goal of the year to kick off a bizarre span of 1:41 that saw two goals and two fights. Ott was wide open on the left side of the slot when he received a pretty cross-ice feed from the charging Robidas, and Ott had enough time to stop the pass, set his feet and fire a wrist shot into the empty side of the goal.
The Penguins almost pulled back to within one with 8:19 remaining when Crosby swept into the right circle and whipped a backhander that beat Lehtonen, but pinged high off the goalpost.
On the counter-attack seconds later, Eriksson ended up on a breakaway, but Penguin blueliner Alex Goligoski pulled him down from behind, resulting in Eriksson’s first career penalty shot. With the crowd roaring, Eriksson skated in and made a nifty deke to his backhand before slipping it behind Pittsburgh goalie Brent Johnson for his first of the night.
“I actually thought about doing that move from the start,” Eriksson said. “I did it once in Vancouver two years ago (in a shootout) and it worked, and today it worked again.”
“It’s a big goal, because it makes it a three-goal game, and any time you get a big play like that, it gives the team momentum,” added defenseman Matt Niskanen. “And what a move he made, and that just kept us rolling throughout the night.”
Just 40 seconds later, captain Brenden Morrow dropped the gloves with Kris Letang in an exciting bout at center ice.
Then immediately off the ensuing face-off, Crosby confronted Niskanen in another fight that will undoubtedly be played on highlight shows across North America. It appears to be Crosby’s fifth NHL fight, and Niskanen’s third.
“Morrow went after Letang there, so it was just a response, sticking up for ‘Tanger,” Crosby said of his motive. “I don’t think you really need to fight him there, but that’s all it was.”
“I never saw that coming,” said Niskanen of the fight. “He was trying to get the team going a little bit, he asked me to go, and we went. I got him hard once in the helmet, if that counts. I hadn’t said a word to him all night. I wasn’t on the ice with him all night. I think he picked me out. Maybe I was the smallest guy out there, I don’t know.”
When asked if fighting a marquee name like Crosby is something he could tell his grandkids about, Niskanen replied, “That I got beat up by Sidney Crosby? I suppose not too many guys are in that club.”
The third fight of the period came with 5:18 left in the period, when Benn, in his second fight of the night, dropped the gloves with Chris Kunitz.
Two minutes later, it appeared that the Penguins had cut the advantage to 4-2, when Goligoski’s wrist shot from the point deflected off Mike Comrie (you know, the one recently married to Hilary Duff) near the right post and in. But after a lengthy video review, replays showed the puck glancing off Comrie’s hand and in and was subsequently disallowed.
Carrying a commanding 4-1 advantage into the final period, the Stars appeared to be in control. Adam Burish had a point-blank opportunity just 1:52 in when a loose puck deflected to him alone in front, but Johnson turned aside his point-blank one-timer.
Dallas put another one up on the board at 5:13 when Eriksson notched his second of the night and team-leading seventh of the season. Following an offensive zone face-off win by Richards over Malkin, Neal ended up poking the puck off Letang’s stick and it went right to Eriksson, who then curled into the slot and fired a scorching wrist shot past Johnson’s blocker.
The Penguins made the score look a little more respectable with 4:24 remaining when Matt Cooke’s wrist shot from the top of the right circle deflected off Karlis Skrastins’ stick in front and bounced past Lehtonen, off the goalpost and in.
The Stars jumped out of the gate quickly, going up 1-0 just 3:51 in on Robidas’ second goal of the season. On the rush into the Pittsburgh zone, Morrow dropped the puck back to the right point for Robidas, who drilled a one slap shot that beat Johnson between the pads.
Just over four minutes later, Dallas went ahead by two as Richards blasted a scorching one-timer from the left circle that beat Johnson over the shoulder. The play was set up when Eriksson outbattled two Penguins defenders behind the net, poking the puck loose to Neal, who fed Richards.
Richards nearly connected again just 36 seconds after that, ripping a snap shot from the left face-off circle that clanked off the near-side post.
The Penguins had a golden opportunity to get back in the game late in the period after Adam Burish was whistled for high-sticking Malkin, giving Pittsburgh a 5-on-3 power play for a full 1:37. But the Stars killed it off, helped some by two big saves from Lehtonen, one on a Malkin one-timer and another on a slap shot from Goligoski.
“The penalty killers tonight were excellent,” said Crawford. “That was a game-changer with the 5-on-3, killing it off the way that Robidas and Ott and Skrastins did. That just lifted everybody on our bench, it lifted everybody in the building.”
On a power play of their own with 2:50 left in the period, the Stars almost extended their lead to three when Richards sprung Ott on a breakaway. As he came in on Johnson, Ott fired a wrist shot from the slot, but Johnson came up with a sparkling glove snag.
Things got physical just before the period ended, after Benn crunched Malkin with a strong check along the boards and Kennedy challenged him to a fight, and the two squared off with 16.7 seconds left.
“Jamie’s a tough kid,” Crawford said. “He played (junior) in the Western Hockey League. He’s no stranger to hard games and tough games, so he acquits himself quite well in that area. I don’t think he had much choice tonight. He’s more of a guy that we want to be on power plays than to be in the box, but in games in which the emotion is there and the passion, you don’t want to discourage that.”
The Stars will conclude their season-long homestand on Friday night (7:30 pm start, FSSW) when former coach Dave Tippett and the Phoenix Coyotes come to town.
“We don’t want to seem even the remote bit satisfied,” Crawford said of the Stars’ recent success. “We’ve got to keep putting these type of efforts out every night. You enjoy it, have a lot of fun tonight, but we have to have a good practice (Thursday) and get ready to battle again on Friday. I like that we’re not allowing teams to come back in games easily. We’re showing a lot more poise and professionalism with the lead.”
- Stars head equipment manager Steve Sumner worked the 1,500th game of his professional hockey career and seemed somewhat embarrassed to be honored at one point on the center-hung video board.
“I don’t like to be put on the spot, I got a little red,” said Sumner, who began his career with Adirondack of the AHL back in 1989. “It’s great to be in this organization with Joe Nieuwendyk and this coaching staff. We have a good bunch of players and it’s good to see them playing so well. We’ve had our ups and downs since I’ve been here, so hopefully it’ll be a good year for us.”
- Benn had engaged in just one fight in 89 career games before this game, against Erik Johnson of the St. Louis Blues last March 4. He also earned an assist for the second consecutive match.
- Robidas once again led the Stars in ice time, with 24:24, while also leading the club with five blocked shots. With his two points, Robidas now has five (one goal, four assists) in the last six contests.
- Richards and Ott each topped the club with five shots on goal.
- Ribeiro’s assist on Ott’s goal was the 300th of his career.
- The Stars’ penalty kill unit, which entered the night still ranked dead last in the NHL, nullified all five Pittsburgh power plays, including the 5-on-3, leaving them a solid 16-for-18 over the last six outings. From the Penguins’ point of view, their power play unit is now 0-for-27 in their last six.
- With the win, the Stars now hold a 5-1-0 record this season against Eastern Conference foes and snapped a five-game losing streak (0-4-1) against the Penguins dating back to 2002-03.