DALLAS - It may have seemed like just another game to Dallas Stars fans, but to the man between the pipes, it was an emotional evening.
Goaltender Kari Lehtonen maintained his focus to sparkle while making 29 saves to propel the Stars to a convincing 6-1 victory over his former team, the Atlanta Thrashers, Saturday night at the American Airlines Center.
And while the final score was pretty lopsided, Dallas needed Lehtonen to help the Stars maintain a two goal lead until the second half of the third period, when three more goals put the game away.
“It was the most exciting game for me this year, lots of emotions,” admitted Lehtonen, who spent the first six-plus years of his NHL career with Atlanta after they made him the second overall draft choice in the 2002 Entry Draft. “I played my own game, the guys came up big there in the third period and the last parts of the second. It was a good win.”
“He was excellent,” coach Marc Crawford said of Lehtonen. “That was a concern, because it was the first time for him to have an experience to play against a former team, a team that you know he’ll be emotional for. They jammed the net a fair bit early and you could tell he was bang-on in his play. He made several very good saves when the game was in the balance.”
For the Pacific Division-leading Stars, the win continued their current roll, leaving them 5-0-1 in their last six games, during which they’ve outscored opponents 23-9 and are a stellar 19-6-5 in their last 30. Dallas has now won two in a row at home after a difficult 0-3-2 stretch on home ice.
“Any time I score, I’m pretty excited, but to get power play goals, it’s huge,” said Daley, who also fired a game-high six shots on goal. “Special teams is a big part of our game today and to get that going and to get a win, it’s fun.”
“It’s funny how it goes sometimes, you can make all sorts of terrific plays and tonight we scored on three broken plays on the power play,” Crawford said of the PP unit that went 4-for-5. “The sticks were in the right place and they kind of just went in. The best play of the night was the last one, and the guy that scores the goal hasn’t had a goal all year (Woywitka). I don’t know, sometimes you just can’t explain it.”
But while many players had important contributions, the Stars on this night rallied around Lehtonen.
“He wanted to come in and have a big game tonight and he did just that,” said Neal, who confirmed it was a priority for the guys in the dressing room. “Any time you play a former team, you do anything you can to get the win, especially for your goalie. He’s done a great job for us. The way he battles to track pucks, pucks going cross-crease and his ability to go side-to-side and make big saves is unbelievable and we’ve seen it since the first game of the year in New Jersey. Big win for Kari tonight.”
“I’m sure it was extremely important to him,” added forward Steve Ott, who delivered a game-high seven hits. “Any time a team moves you along or kind of gives up on you as a goalie, you find life somewhere else. It’s pretty obvious he’s moved on. He’s our catalyst and without him, it would be a completely different game. He’s been that solid for this team.”
Lehtonen confirmed he has turned the page, less than a year after the Stars acquired him in a trade for prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round draft choice.
“I was kind of surprised when I looked at their lineup and there’s eight players that I used to play with, so that’s quite a changeover in players,” Lehtonen said. “Still, they felt like the enemy for me, so I guess now I’m a Dallas Star for sure. I’m really happy and excited to be here and it couldn’t be better.”
Despite getting outshot 13-6 in the first period, the Stars carried a 1-0 lead into the second and came out of the gates flying. Atlanta goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was forced to make a couple of tough saves in the opening minute, denying Brenden Morrow’s rebound chance in front and then stopping Robidas’ in-close backhander.
Lehtonen made a sparkling save to keep Atlanta off the board at 5:07, after Bryan Little sped into the Dallas zone and fed a pass from the right face-off circle in front to a charging Evander Kane, but Lehtonen slid across the crease to made a huge pad save on Kane’s one-timer attempt.
The Thrashers ended up tying it at 6:21 on Andrew Ladd’s 16th goal of the year, when he fired a low snap shot from the right point that whizzed past a screened Lehtonen to make it 1-1.
After a lot of rough stuff early on, it seemed like the bad blood had simmered a bit, but then Brian Sutherby and Atlanta’s Chris Thorburn squared off at center ice for a fight at 10:30.
The Stars had the next good scoring chance at 11:49, when Jamie Langenbrunner made a nifty mid-air deflection from the slot on Robidas’ point shot that Pavelec barely got a piece of to send it just wide.
That play seemed to spur on the Stars, as they poured on the pressure after that and ended up jumping ahead 2-1 on Burish’s fifth of the season at 13:58. Robidas fired a high snap shot from the right point that Burish, cruising across about 15 feet in front, waved his stick behind him and managed to deflect it down and through Pavelec.
With a power play late in the period, the Stars struck again, as Daley collected his second of the night and fifth of the year with just 54.3 seconds remaining. After receiving a pass from Ribeiro at center ice, Daley raced into the Atlanta zone on the rush and unleashed a lethal wrist shot from the right circle that beat Pavelec over the blocker and into the upper far corner of the net.
Lehtonen came up with a pair of big stops with 20 seconds to go in the period, denying Dustin Byfuglien’s slap shot from the right point and Spencer Machacek’s backhander on the resulting rebound to preserve the Dallas advantage.
For the second straight game, the Stars entered the final period with a two-goal lead, but this time they didn’t squander it like they did in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Edmonton.
“When we’ve got the lead, we need to keep going after teams and not sit back,” Woywitka noted. “Put them on their heels instead of them putting us on our heels and getting nervous and panicking, just keep playing the same way we’ve been playing to get the lead and continue it.”
The Stars did just that, and after several opportunities on the only power play they failed to score on midway through the period, they essentially put the game away with an even-strength tally by Neal at 11:09. As he and Loui Eriksson raced into the Atlanta zone on a 2-on-1 rush, they exchanged passes that ultimately ended with Neal jamming in a tap-in at the right goalpost.
“We had pretty much everybody going tonight and it’s nice when you have that, when people play with that type of spirit,” Crawford said. “It took a little while for us to get into a bit of a dominant role, but we get the fourth goal, especially, it kind of put the lights out on them.”
Then, with a late double-minor power play, the Stars converted on both, with Neal coming up with a deft deflection in the high slot of Robidas’ point shot, making it 5-1 with 3:06 remaining.
The second one, with 1:08 to go, was courtesy of Daley’s defense partner, Woywitka, who received a nice pass from Morrow in the left circle and launched a seeing-eye wrist shot from the high slot over Pavelec’s glove hand. It was Woywitka’s first goal of the season and first since April 2009 when he was with the St. Louis Blues, a span of 69 NHL games without a goal.
The contest began with a physical flavor to it, as the players on both sides converged at center ice during the pre-game warm-ups, engaging in some heated discussions, and that carried over to the first period, when there were several post-whistle scrums and crushing checks for both sides through the first several minutes.
The rough stuff included Atlanta’s Anthony Stewart bowling over Lehtonen in the crease at 7:48 to earn a goaltender interference penalty, and Dallas capitalized on the ensuing power play to go up 1-0. Daley got his first of the night when he launched a wrist shot from the point that deflected off the shaft of Thrasher defenseman Zach Bogosian’s stick and over Pavelec’s shoulder at 9:31.
Almost immediately after the puck dropped again, the contest’s first fight took place as Krys Barch and Eric Boulton, two of the primary participants in the pre-game festivities, dropped the gloves. It turned out to be a brief bout because the two hit the ice after Barch landed a major blow.
The fisticuffs seemed to energize the Thrashers a bit as they began tp apply some pressure, but Lehtonen came up with some nice saves, including a pad stop on Little’s point-blank one-timer at 12:05 and again on Little’s stuff attempt at the left post with 4:39 left in the period.
Ott delivered probably the game’s most devastating check with 3:16 remaining when he leveled Atlanta’s Niclas Bergfors with a high hit that left Bergfors down on the ice for about a minute or two.
Atlanta got a late power play of their own after Mark Fistric was called for boarding on Boulton, and the Thrashers peppered Lehtonen, but he stood tall, particularly on Evander Kane’s in-close rebound chance with 1:23 to go.
The Stars hope to keep the home mojo working when they face Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Monday night (7:30 pm start, VERSUS). The Kings, who skated at home against the Oilers Saturday night, entered the day with a 23-19-1 record and sat 10th in the West, but just six points back of fourth.
“Just do the same things we did tonight, just stay focused and keep this little run at home going,” said Neal of the club’s mindset heading into that one.
- His big night leaves Daley with three goals in his last three games and a total of six points (three goals, three assists) in his last six games. He also logged a game-high 23:33 of ice time.
- Neal’s two-goal game leaves him with goals in three consecutive games, during which he’s totaled four goals. He also has five in the last six outings. Neal, skating in his 200th career game, fired five shots on goal, second only to Daley’s six.
- Burish now has points in consecutive games (including an assist Tuesday) following a stretch of nine games without any. He was also a stellar 9-2 in the face-off circle.
- Ribeiro tied a career-high by extending his scoring streak to eight games, during which he’s amassed 10 points (three goals, seven assists).
- Richards’ pair of assists gives him 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) over his last 14 contests. He has now compiled 53 career points (17 goals, 36 assists) against the Thrashers in 46 games, his most against any NHL clubs.
- Benn’s two assists leave him with five points (three goals, two assists) in the last three games and 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in his last 13 outings.
- Robidas’ two-assist night snapped a 10-game point drought.
- Eriksson’s assist on Neal’s first goal extends his scoring streak to a career-high nine games, the longest active streak in the NHL. He’s collected 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) over that span.
- Overall, 12 different Stars recorded points in the game, surpassing the previous season-high of 10 in their 5-2 win over Montreal on Dec. 21.
- Defenseman Karlis Skrastins returned to the lineup after missing three contests with an upper body injury. Fellow defender Matt Niskanen, who was injured in the same collision with Skrastins, sat out his fourth straight with a hand laceration, while Toby Petersen remained out with a lower body injury.
- Atlanta goaltender Chris Mason actually started the contest, but came out after just 7:48 of the first period due to a lower body injury suffered when Ribeiro and Atlanta’s Chris Thorburn slid into him. He faced just three shots and stopped them all, before Pavelec relieved him.
- Dallas is now a league-best 21-2-1 when scoring the first goal.
- The Stars are now 13-0-1 when leading after two periods.
- With the win, Dallas is now a ridiculous 11-1-1 all-time against Atlanta and a stellar 11-2-1 against Eastern Conference teams this year.
- The power play explosion, which matches their season-high, leaves the Stars 10-for-23 over their last seven contests. On the penalty kill, Dallas is just as dominant, killing off all three Atlanta power plays and nullifying 17-of-18 over the last seven games.