DALLAS - This one had the feel of a playoff game, and as the Dallas Stars battle down the stretch, it is likely that most of the last 20 games will look similar.
As the Stars continue their dogfight to get into those playoffs for the first time in three seasons, performances like their inspiring 3-2 comeback triumph over the Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon at the American Airlines Center boosts their chances immensely.
The Stars won their second straight contest, following up a stellar outing Thursday night when they defeated Detroit 4-1 on the road, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
These two victories, a nice reversal of fortune after a five-game losing streak and a 1-8-1 slide coming out of the All-Star break, give the Stars 72 points. That leaves them in a momentary three-way tie with Los Angeles and Minnesota for fifth in the ridiculously-close, and constantly changing, Western Conference standings.
It also helps that in battling back from a 2-1 third period deficit, the Stars handed Nashville their fourth straight loss, since they entered the contest as one of four tied with Dallas at 70 points.
Recently-acquired defenseman Alex Goligoski scored a goal and assisted on Loui Eriksson’s game-winner with just 3:42 left in regulation, while Tom Wandell also found the back of the net. Captain Brenden Morrow added two assists in a game as important for the club’s collective psyche as it was to their post-season aspirations.
“It was so, so important,” coach Marc Crawford said. “I give a lot of credit to our guys for digging in and finding a way. I thought we started the game the way we wanted to. We knew it was going to be a hard-fought, hard-skating battle. They play a style of game where they don’t beat themselves, they play a puck-possession game and they try to break you down. For the most part, I thought we did a real good job of recovering and being above pucks, getting ourselves back into solid positioning defensively. But they’re a good team, they don’t give a lot defensively. A hard-fought two points.”
“Hopefully, they’re all going to feel like that,” Morrow said of the playoff atmosphere. “We need to play with that desperation and intensity. The majority of games, the teams we’re coming up against are going to be in the same position, so we need to rise to the occasion and have that same desperation in our game. We had that tonight and it felt like a playoff game.”
Following his outstanding 38-save performance Thursday night in Detroit, Kari Lehtonen was back in goal and sparkled once again. After surrendering the go-ahead goal in the second period that he’d like to have back, Lehtonen bore down and wound up with 25 saves, including a couple big ones late as the Predators looked for the equalizer.
“I felt like I let the team down a little bit in the second, I wasn’t happy with my play, so it was nice to see the guys come back,” said Lehtonen, who has allowed just four goals in the last three games, posting a stellar .954 save percentage over that span. “There wasn’t really any shots until the last three minutes of the third period, and we scored two goals, so the finish was really good.”
“We can work on our defense as much as we want, but if our goalie isn’t sharp, it probably doesn’t give us the desired result,” Crawford said. “The acquired result of these wins have been because our goalie played extremely well and has been there for us when we’ve had scrambles and when they’ve generated chances.”
But as well as Lehtonen played, it was Goligoski, skating in just his third game for the Stars since his acquisition from Pittsburgh on Tuesday, who had the biggest impact on the contest.
“I think it’s a huge win,” said Goligoski, who now has three points (one goal, two assists) in the last two games. “Trailing going into the third period, a big road trip coming up, this was a big game, and obviously where they were in the standings and where we were, it was a big win, definitely.”
Trailing 2-1 entering the final period, the Stars received a fortunate bounce to tie it up 2-2 at 6:02, on Goligoski’s first goal since joining the club on Tuesday. Carrying the puck out of the Dallas zone, Goligoski crossed the Nashville blue line and threw the puck towards the net, where Adam Burish was looking for a pass. The puck nicked off the stick of Predator defenseman Jonathan Blum, slighting changing direction and bouncing in front of the net to find its way past the blocker of goaltender Pekka Rinne, off the goalpost and in.
“They got a fluke goal, plain and simple,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “We defended well and did all the things you have to do in the third period. They were just dumping it in. Please. That’s a one in a million thing.”
“We got a little bit fortunate on the tying goal,” Crawford acknowledged, “but it found a way in and their goalie made a lot of good saves on better chances, just as ours did.”
The Stars maintained the momentum after that, drawing a power play and nearly got the go-ahead goal at 9:13. Rinne stopped Stephane Robidas’ shot from the left point, but the rebound went right to Brenden Morrow on the doorstep and Rinne made a nice pad stop on his quick shot.
Seconds after rookie Tomas Vincour’s one-timer from the slot slithered just wide of the left post, he was leveled by Shea Weber, who drove his head into the boards behind the Nashville net, earning a boarding penalty and putting Dallas on a power play.
With the 15,680 fans inside the American Airlines Center roaring, the Stars capitalized on the opportunity, as Eriksson notched his 21st goal of the season with 3:42 remaining in regulation. As the Stars entered the Predator zone on the rush, Goligoski set up the play from the high slot, faking a shot and instead slipping a slick pass to Eriksson in front for a nifty re-direction that beat Rinne just inside the right post.
The goal was the Stars’ first one with the man-advantage in five games, snapping an 0-for-16 drought, and it was as timely as they come.
“Morrow made a great play, the D kind of pinched up on me, so Loui was wide open there and I hit him on the back door,” Goligoski said of the goal, his 10th overall on the season.
“Our power play goal, that was a very, very good play,” Crawford said. “You could see where Goligoski’s speed and ability to join the rush just adds creativity to your offensive game, when you can create an out-numbering chance, and he knows what to do with the puck. He made a good pass to initially start it, he followed the play, and then made a quality pass to Loui Eriksson to put it home.”
Entering the final two minutes, the Stars were outshooting Nashville 9-2 for the period, but the Predators made a late push, especially after pulling Rinne for an extra attacker with 1:10 left.
Lehtonen made an outstanding glove save on Ryan Suter’s wrist shot from the high slot with 1:01 remaining, then was knocked over by Martin Erat, who was charging the net, setting off a near riot.
Despite a hooking penalty on Jamie Benn with just 7.1 seconds on the clock, Burish won the ensuing face-off and the Stars were able to close it out.
“Thirds have generally been our best,” Morrow said of the final period rally. “We just told each other to stick with it, if it took 20 minutes or 25 minutes, just need to believe that if we kept outworking them, out-chancing them, some of them would go in, and that was the case. We got a pretty lucky bounce on one, and then a nice play by Goose to get another one.”
The Stars had the first top-notch scoring opportunity at 5:12 of the opening period when Vincour intercepted a Nashville clearing attempt inside the Predator blue line and then fed Benn for a partial breakaway. As Benn tried to deke to his backhand, Rinne poke-checked the puck off his stick.
Dallas had another big flurry of activity, maintaining possession in the Nashville zone for over a minute straight and generating several outstanding chances. The first came with 6:44 left in the period when Trevor Daley walked into the slot and fired an uncontested wrist shot that Rinne somehow stopped with his pad. Daley got the rebound to the left of the crease and had a small opening, but hit the netting next to the post.
Then about 1:10 later, Vincour fired a scorching wrister from the high slot, but Rinne made a nice blocker save to deflect it over the net.
The Stars kept pressing and wound up breaking through with 1:54 remaining in the period on Wandell’s fourth goal of the season. Wandell collected an errant Predators pass inside the Dallas zone and sped up ice on a 2-on-1 rush with Jamie Langenbrunner. As he reached the high slot, Wandell opted to shoot, and his wrist shot beat Rinne between the pads for a 1-0 lead.
The Stars had trailed 11-5 in shots on goal at one point in the period, but ended up down just 12-11 in that category as they headed into the second.
Nashville tied it up 1-1 at the five-minute mark on a goal by Suter, who rifled a wrist shot from the high slot that was blocked in front by Robidas, but the puck bounced right back to Suter and he fired it just inside the left post, past Lehtonen’s blocker.
With the Predators surging with momentum, Lehtonen came up with two big saves less than two minutes later, first denying David Legwand’s wrister from the right circle and then snagging with his glove Cody Franson’s slap shot from the right point seconds later.
Nashville then seized a 2-1 edge at 13:32 of the second on a strong effort from Colin Wilson, who recorded his 14th goal of the season. Lehtonen turned aside a weak wrist shot from the right point from Franson, but the rebound spit out front, where Wilson battled past Robidas, diving to chip the puck past a somewhat surprised Lehtonen.
Less than a minute later, the Stars pushed back and wound up with a 5-on-3 power play for 1:35, but just 10 seconds into it, Morrow was whistled for holding. That left the Stars with a still-dangerous 4-on-3 advantage, but they were unable to capitalize.
They did get a golden opportunity to even it up with 1:03 left in the second, though, when Benn stripped Weber of the puck at center ice and sped in on a 2-on-1 rush with Langenbrunner. Rinne made a nice pad save on Benn’s wrist shot, but the rebound popped right to Langenbrunner, who seemed about to bang it into the open side of the net, but Rinne made a spectacular diving save, swatting it away with his glove.
After getting the next two days off, the Stars hope to carry the momentum over as they embark on a crucial four-game road trip in which they face every one of their Pacific Division rivals, starting with a date in Phoenix Tuesday night (8 pm, FSSW+) against Dave Tippett’s Coyotes, who currently sit fourth in the West with 75 points.
“We need to win right now, it’s such a tight race for the playoffs, so it’s nice to get two wins in a row against some very good hockey clubs,” Lehtonen said. “We just have to keep going. We have a big road trip coming up against some very good teams, so hopefully, we can keep this up.”
- Leading scorer Brad Richards, who is still ranked eighth in the entire NHL, sat out his sixth straight contest with concussion-like symptoms, as did top-pair blueliner Nicklas Grossman.
- In addition to his big day on the scoresheet, Goligoski also led the Stars in ice time, logging 24:35.
- Eriksson now has goals in consecutive games and his game-winner was his team-leading sixth of the season.
- Wandell’s goal was his first point since Dec. 16, a span of 25 games played.
- Morrow’s two assists leaves him with five points (one goal, four assists) in the last five outings.
- The win gives the Stars a 12-4-1 record against Central Division teams this year.
- Their comeback boosts the Stars’ mark when trailing after two periods to 7-18-2. The seven wins tie the New York Rangers for most in the league.
- Dallas now has the NHL’s best record in games decided by one goal, 19-5-6, and their 25-3-2 mark when scoring the game’s first goal also leads the league.
1 - 0 DAL
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 NSH