CALGARY - For awhile it looked like a gritty performance by a group of character guys who just wouldn’t accept the bad hand they’ve been dealt, but in the end, a couple of brief lapses, and sub-par special teams, doomed the Dallas Stars.
Riddled with injuries and struggling to keep from falling out of a ridiculously tight Western Conference playoff battle, Dallas lost a 2-1 lead due by surrendering one goal each on the power play, short-handed and at even-strength, ultimately falling 4-2 to the Calgary Flames Wednesday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
The defeat is devastating to the Stars, who have now lost six in a row on the road by a combined margin of 31-12 and fall to 2-8-1 in their last 11 overall, a span in which they’ve been outscored 44-22. Worse, they continue to sink in the standings, falling out of the Pacific Division lead to being one of five teams tied with 68 points, occupying spots 4-8 in the conference, with ninth-place Los Angeles just one behind.
“Obviously, there’s not a whole lot of positives when you’re on a losing streak like that,” defenseman Stephane Robidas said. “We just got to keep working hard. We’re going through adversity now and I think it’s going to make our team stronger. Every team goes through it. Just look at Calgary over there. They were one of the worst teams in the league and look at where they’re at right now.”
He is right about Calgary, who turned their season around and started the Stars’ slide in their last meeting here back on January 21. The Flames’ 7-4 win that night snapped the Stars’ franchise-record eight-game road winning streak, and spurred Calgary on to a hot streak of their own, with this win giving them a stellar 10-1-2 record since, vaulting them from the fringes of the playoff chase into one of those clubs with 68 points.
Despite being dominated in the first period, the Stars escaped with just a 1-0 deficit, thanks primarily to some outstanding work by goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who made 15 saves in the period and 27 overall.
Dallas then rallied in the second to jump ahead 2-1 on goals by Mike Ribeiro and Jamie Langenbrunner, but an ill-timed penalty led to a Flames power play goal late in the second that turned the momentum back Calgary’s way. Then two goals within the first five minutes of the third, including a crushing short-hander put the contest away.
“I think Kari really bailed us out there in the first,” said Langenbrunner, who also added an assist. “Without that, we could have been down two or three goals easily. But then we got our legs moving and we started playing hockey again. We’re missing a lot of guys, but nobody cares in this league who’s in the lineup, you still got to go out and get points. We know now we’re in a battle for a playoff spot and we know these games are going to keep on ticking by - we got to pick up some points.”
“We made a couple of mistakes and it’s small things,” coach Marc Crawford said. “The margin of error is so minute at this time of the year that you’ve got to make sure when you come back, you stop, you battle to stay in lanes. They were fortuitous tonight with some of the bounces that they got, but all we can concentrate on is how hard we have to work. We worked a little harder, but there’s still more to give and that’s what we have to keep concentrating on, keep pushing to get it.”
With the Stars missing leading scorer Brad Richards with an upper body injury, as well as top pair defenseman Nicklas Grossman and several other regular forwards, they needed others to step up and Langenbrunner certainly did that. This was probably his best game since re-joining the Stars in a trade with New Jersey back on Jan. 7.
“I had some good talks with coaches and with Joe, and they basically just told me to relax, have some fun,” Langenbrunner said, referring to General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “I was putting too much pressure on myself to do something I’m not, so I needed to just kind of turn the brain off and go out there and play hockey like I know how to. I felt better (Tuesday night against Edmonton) and tonight, it started to come together a little bit more.”
After a first period dominated by Calgary, during which the Stars were outshot by a 16-3 margin, Dallas trailed just 1-0 heading into the second.
The Stars began to turn the tide early in the period, maintaining considerable pressure and building a 6-1 lead in shots up until the point where Ribeiro tied it up with his 11th goal of the season at 7:21. After Langenbrunner broke up a Calgary rush in his own zone, the Stars went the other way on the counter-attack, leading to Ribeiro curling through the slot to low in the left face-off circle. He spun and fired the puck into the crease and it ricocheted off the skate of Calgary’s Olli Jokinen and in.
Dallas wound up taking the lead just five seconds after their first power play of the night expired, on Langenbrunner’s sixth of the year at 10:47, thanks to another somewhat fortunate bounce. After James Neal’s shot from the top of the right face-off circle deflected off a Calgary defender and right to Langenbrunner in the left circle, the 35-year-old winger fired a quick wrister into the open side of the net before Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff could dive across.
The Stars were completely dominating the period, outshooting Calgary 8-1 at that point, but ended up giving the Flames a chance to stabilize things when Langenbrunner was whistled for slashing at 12:19 and Calgary capitalized. With just 10 seconds left in the power play, Tom Kostopolous tied it at 14:09 when he deflected Rene Bourque’s slap shot from the left point up and over Lehtonen’s shoulder.
Tied 2-2 entering the final period, the Stars surrendered the go-ahead goal just 2:35 in when Cory Sarich floated a high wrist shot from the point through a maze of bodies in front, over Lehtonen’s glove and off the underside of the crossbar and in.
Just 22 seconds later, the Stars nearly tied it up yet again, but Robidas’ booming one-timer from the top of the right face-off circle clanked off the right goalpost.
Shortly after that, Dallas had another opportunity with a power play, but instead of getting the equalizer, they wound up surrendering their 10th short-handed goal of the season. With the Flames on the counter-attack, Bourque fed a pass across to defenseman Steve Staios in the high slot and his one-timer beat Lehtonen low inside the right post at 4:47.
“Obviously, it’s bad timing for that,” Langenbrunner said. “You’re in a tight battle, you have an opportunity on the power play to tie up the game, and you give up a shortie. Those are back-breakers. You can’t get caught like that, we’re better than that. Those are ones that definitely hurt and just can’t happen.”
That goal seemed to suck the life out of the Stars, and even Crawford’s tactic of pulling Lehtonen in favor of backup Andrew Raycroft, who has played just nine minutes since that last trip to Calgary when he allowed seven goals on 19 shots. Raycroft manned the crease for less than 15 seconds, because Lehtonen went back in at the next stoppage of play.
“The short-handed goal, we can’t make that play,” Crawford said. “The game is there, the game is in the balance and we’ve got to just be smart on that. You’re trying to tie it with 15 minutes to go and you don’t have to.”
As the period wore on, the Stars began to display some more signs of life, almost getting one back with 8:10 remaining in regulation when Trevor Daley traveled deep into the Calgary zone and cut into the front of the crease, but Kiprusoff made a nice in-close save.
Dallas buzzed around the Flames’ zone down the stretch but did not generate any more prime scoring chances until it was almost too late. It appeared that captain Brenden Morrow had pulled the Stars to within one just 24 seconds left, but his one-timer from a sharp angle low in the right circle was somehow stopped by Kiprusoff on the goal line.
“When you don’t play your best and you start thinking too much, the bounces don’t go your way and I think that’s what’s going on right now with us - a little too much thinking,” Robidas said. “We had some good chances, but couldn’t put it in. They could have made a difference in the game, but we can’t look at it that way, we’ve just got to keep building on what we’ve been doing.”
Dallas did not quite get off to the start they’d hoped for, as the Flames jumped on top just 4:14 into the opening period. Mark Giordano’s seemingly innocent-looking slap shot from the right point managed to find a way through a screen in front to put Calgary up 1-0.
The Flames continued to press and held a commanding 10-2 edge in shots on goal through the first 13 minutes, when Toby Petersen, playing just his second game after missing 16 with a leg injury, fired a point-blank wrist shot from the slot that forced Kiprusoff to make a nice pad save.
The Stars had a glorious opportunity to tie it up with 1:30 remaining in the first period when Morrow and Ribeiro raced into the Calgary zone on a shorthanded 2-on-1 rush, but Morrow flubbed a sure tap-in on the return pass at the right post.
“I try to think about those things, but it’s going to be a restless night not sleeping thinking about that one,” Morrow said. “I think I had the time, I didn’t have to try and one-time it. I could have stopped it and then tried to shoot it in, but on the second bounce, (Calgary defenseman Jay Bouwmeester) got his stick on it. Who knows what would have happened?”
The Stars next get a couple of days to catch their breath as they head to Vancouver for the final installment on their Western Canada road trip on Saturday night (9:00 pm, TXA-21). Besides the fact that the Canucks are sitting comfortably in first place overall in the entire NHL, they have devoured the Stars so far this season, defeating them three times by a combined score of 15-3, so things certainly don’t get any easier.
“We just got to keep getting things right,” Crawford said. “We’ve got to get that through our thick skulls, because when we did it, I thought we dominated parts of the game. It’s a constant reinforcement with our guys to do the right thing continually and trust in the fact that when you do the right thing, it’s going to pay off.
“Another hard lesson for us tonight. It was better, there’s no doubt about that, but at the same time, we can still work harder. There’s a lot more for us to give and we’ve got to push hard to get it.”
- Langenbrunner, who notched his first goal in 12 games and just his second since re-joining the Stars in early January, had recorded just one assist in his previous seven outings.
- Ribeiro’s goal was his first in 11 contests, and he also had recorded just one assist in the previous seven. He was also a stellar 12-3 on face-offs for the night.
-Neal’s assist on Langenbrunner’s goal snapped an eight-game point drought.
- For Morrow, his assist on Ribeiro’s goal gives him seven points (five goals, two assists) in the last nine contests.
- With his assist, Daley now has two helpers in the last three games after compiling two assists in the previous 10. Daley also led the Stars in ice time, logging a whopping 29:49, his highest figure of the season.
- In addition to the absence of Richards and Grossman for the second straight game, the Stars were also without Jamie Benn (missing his ninth game with a shoulder injury), Adam Burish (sixth with facial fractures), Krys Barch (sixth with facial fractures) and Raymond Sawada (sixth with shoulder).
- Dallas was 0-for-2 on the power play, leaving them just 4-for-38 over their last 11 contests with the man advantage.