DALLAS - Another hard-fought close game, more playoff intensity, and unfortunately for the Dallas Stars, a second straight heart-breaking defeat.
After a third period power play goal by Jamie Benn pulled the Stars to within 4-3, two late power plays provided an opportunity to tie it and at least earn one point in the standings for reaching overtime, but there would be no late heroics this time as Dallas fell 6-3 to the San Jose Sharks Tuesday night at the American Airlines Center.
The loss was deflating for several reasons, most notably because their second straight defeat after a 6-0-2 hot streak leaves Dallas stuck at 82 points, currently seventh in the ultra-competitive Western Conference standings, now a full six back of the Pacific Division-leading Sharks.
In the fourth game of a season-long seven-game homestand in which they are now 1-2-1, the Stars jumped out to a 2-0 lead early in the second period, but wound up surrendering four unanswered goals, including two within a 1:40 span early in the third period.
Benn managed to cut the deficit to 4-3 in the third and the Stars had two power plays in the final four minutes of play, but not only were they unable to tie it, they allowed two empty-netters in the final 1:08 to make the final score look a lot worse than it was.
“You hate to dwell on games for too long, maybe 5-10 minutes and you’ve got to just park the game and move on and start focusing on the next one,” said winger Steve Ott, who assisted on Benn’s goal. “It’s not going to get any easier. It’s going to be extremely tough the rest of the way, it’s going to be extremely tight and for us, we’ve got to focus on the next game and go after that.”
“I think you just learn from your mistakes and move on,” said Benn, who also added two assists in a dominant performance. “Forget about it and go on to the next game.”
Adding to the playoff atmosphere was the physical nature of the game, which at times bordered on crossing the line into questionable cheap shots and resulted in somewhat of a verbal battle afterwards, especially with the Stars ending up on the wrong side of the ledger both on the scoreboard and in the hit department.
“Oftentimes, it’s a very brief lapse in your play that costs you at this time of the year and that’s something that we’ll have to rectify,” coach Marc Crawford said. “It was kind of a helter-skelter type of game, with all the head hits in the game. Sometimes you wish your team performed at the optimum level, but the emotion of the game and the energy of the game sometimes takes it away. I thought tonight was a combination of all those elements.”
At the center of the hard feelings on the Stars side was how the game seemed to shift early in the second period after San Jose defenseman Douglas Murray leveled Dallas top-line winger Loui Eriksson. Murray’s shoulder appeared to connect with Eriksson’s jaw, causing Eriksson to stumble several times before he needed to be helped off the ice. He didn’t return.
“I think that’s one that they will review and I’m sure that they will,” Crawford said, suggesting the NHL and league disciplinarian Colin Campbell should mete out supplemental justice, including a suspension. “We’re hopeful that Loui’s going to be all right. He’s not feeling very good right now and we’ll see where he’s at tomorrow. It’s always the next day that you got to look to. The league has said that you want to take those hits out of the game, but it ends up being something we can’t control and it’s out of our hands now.”
On the very next shift, at 4:12 of the second, Ott challenged Murray to a fight, which helped whip the American Airlines Center crowd of 16,724 into a frenzy. Unfortunately for Dallas, which was leading 1-0 at the time, Ott was called for an instigator penalty, which put San Jose on a power play, and a 10-minute misconduct that kept him off the ice for the remainder of the period.
There were several other questionable hits as the game wore on, with one of the Stars’ late power plays coming because Dany Heatley staggered Ott with a high hit to the head. Dallas also pointed to another Murray hit on rookie Tomas Vincour. With the league GMs looking into curbing concussions league-wide, it plays into a debate going on around the NHL right now about what is acceptable and what isn’t.
“There were a lot of physical plays in the game tonight and we didn’t capitalize on it in the end,” Crawford said. “We had those power plays at the end, from their head hits, they missed the one on Murray from Vincour and that was definitely an elbow to the head, and the one on Heatley that they did get, you wonder why it’s only two minutes.”
“I think Colin Campbell’s got his hands full, that’s for sure,” said Ott, who picked up 17 minutes in penalties. “The Loui Eriksson hit, that’s prototypical, he’s reaching for the hit, the big guy (Murray) knows what he’s doing and he’s bearing down and finishing the check. He did it again on an offensive play on Vincour, he elbowed him right in the face, and my head’s killing me from Dany Heatley’s little cheap shot. If this doesn’t get looked at, and I guess when you’ve been on the other end of it and been suspended like I’ve been in the past, it’s pretty evident where this stuff should go. I don’t care if Heatley makes $10 million or whatever Murray makes, it’s time to get this stuff out of the game, protect the guys. We’ve got guys that are going to be icing heads and you’ve only got one brain, so let’s honestly start figuring stuff out.”
Not surprisingly, the Sharks saw things differently.
“When it comes to Eriksson, it’s a 50/50 puck,” Murray said of his hit that went unpenalized. “If he pokes it by me, he’s getting a breakaway, so as far as I remember the situation, I went to play the puck in the body on the same time and I hit him. You never try to hurt a guy but it’s unfortunate.”
In addition to Benn’s impressive offensive display, Dallas also received goals from Mike Ribeiro and Toby Petersen, while Kari Lehtonen, making his 11th straight start in goal, and his 17th out of the last 18 contests, turned aside 33 San Jose shots.
“He was marvelous tonight, he really was,” Crawford said of Benn’s performance. “He played hard all night, and made plays, scored goals, killed penalties, was good on the power play. There were lots of positives about him.”
Tied 2-2 heading into the final period, the Stars allowed two goals in the first 3:31 to fall down by two. First, Ryane Clowe collected his 23rd goal of the season just 1:51 in after Joe Pavelski stripped Jeff Woywitka of the puck in the right corner. Pavelski quickly fed a wide open Clowe in front and the Shark winger popped it home before Lehtonen could get across the crease.
Just 1:40 later, the Sharks struck again, after the Stars lost another battle for the puck along the boards. This time, Pavelski picked up a loose puck just inside the Dallas zone, sped into the left face-off circle on a 2-on-1 and slid a cross-ice pass to the charging Torrey Mitchell, who one-timed it past Lehtonen’s glove.
The Stars gradually began to push back and after earning a power play, they managed to cut the deficit to one on Benn’s 20th goal of the year at 8:11. Ott retrieved a loose puck behind the San Jose net and banked a pass off the back of the goal to Benn at the left post, and Benn swept a backhander on goal as he cut out into the crease. Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi made the initial pad save, but Benn got the rebound and fired another backhander through Niemi’s pads for his his seventh goal in the last eight games.
“It was just kind of a mess out there, good battle by Ott and Langenbrunner there,” the humble Benn said. “I kind of just got it to the front and I didn’t even see it go in.”
“He really has (been incredible),” Ott added. “He’s a future superstar in the making, I guess he’s already got superstar tendencies, but even he doesn’t know how good he is. He’s so good with the puck, he’s such a strong beast with anything that he does. If this is the first step with Jamie Benn, wait until five years down the road, it’s going to be disgusting.”
Dallas had a late chance to even it up again after Heatley nailed Ott along the center ice boards with 4:06 left in regulation, but the Sharks had the best scoring chance on that power play. After a Stars turnover at the San Jose blue line, Joe Thornton sped off on a breakaway, but Lehtonen came up with a big pad save on Thornton’s move to his backhand, with 2:29 to go.
The Stars then got another power play with 2:01 remaining after Logan Couture shot the puck from his own zone into the stands for a delay of game penalty. When Dallas pulled Lehtonen for an extra attacker with 1:27 left, it gave them a 6-on-4 advantage, but Thornton struck again, intercepting Brad Richards’ pass just inside the San Jose zone and firing the puck down the ice for an empty-netter.
Heatley added another empty net goal from his own zone with 40.1 seconds to go and that signaled the end for Dallas.
“We got that 4-3 one on the power play and had a couple of opportunities on the power play at the end that we couldn’t capitalize on, but it definitely wasn’t because of a lack of effort, that’s for sure,” said Ott, who delivered a game-high seven hits. “I think we played some pretty good hockey, and were continuing to try to do some pretty good things out there. You win or lose by your special teams and tonight we could have got back in the game if we could have got that big one.”
Despite the fact that San Jose outshot them 15-9 through the scoreless opening period, the Stars really didn’t allow too many point-blank opportunities. The Sharks’ best chance in the first came with 3:34 left in the period, when Patrick Marleau picked up a loose puck low in the left face-off circle, curled around the net and tried to stuff it in at the right post. The puck clinked off the post and into the crease, where Pavelski swatted at it, forcing Lehtonen to make a strong, sprawling save.
The Stars snapped the 0-0 tie at 3:28 of the second period on Ribeiro’s 16th goal of the season, four of which have come against the Sharks. After controlling the puck in the left corner, Ribeiro circled the net, curled out the right side and into the slot before firing a rising wrist shot over a screened Niemi’s glove hand.
Just 24 seconds later, the Murray nailed Eriksson and obliged Ott’s fight challenge at 4:12. With the Sharks on a power play, they nearly tied it at 4:48 when Marleau drilled a slap shot from the right point that squeezed through Lehtonen and trickled into the crease, but before it could cross the goal line, Karlis Skrastins alertly cleared it out.
On the ensuing counter-attack, Dallas wound up jumping ahead by two as a spectacular play by Benn led to Petersen’s short-handed goal at 5:08. As he led the rush into the San Jose zone, Benn worked his way around Dan Boyle and faked Niemi to the ice on the left side of the crease before curling his way around the net and into the right corner. At that point, Benn spun and fired the puck into the crease, where Petersen re-directed it past Pavelski and the scrambling Niemi for his second goal of the season.
Just 11 seconds after the Sharks’ power play expired, they cut the Dallas lead to 2-1, on a nifty deflection by Thornton for his first of the night. Boyle launched a wrist shot from the point, and Thornton, cruising through the high slot, managed to get his stick on it about thigh-high and re-directed it past a screened Lehtonen at 6:23.
Dallas got into penalty trouble again later in the period, and when Benn fired the puck out of his own zone and into the crowd at 12:09, it gave the Sharks a 5-on-3 advantage for 58 seconds.
San Jose only needed 31 seconds to capitalize, though, as Heatley struck for his 23rd goal of the year. After Ribeiro’s stick was snapped while blocking a shot, the Sharks were able to move the puck around much easier. Lehtonen ended up making a scintillating sliding save on Marleau’s point-blank one-timer, but Heatley was there for the rebound, backhanding it over Lehtonen’s pad for the equalizer.
“It was just really unfortunate bad luck,” Crawford said of that sequence. “Our one player, Jamie Benn, played a marvelous game, he was fatigued, he got a lot on that clearing pass and that unfortunately put them on the two-man advantage. Nobody feels worse than he did to put it into the stands, but they got on the two-man advantage and our forward gets his stick broken blocking a shot, so we’re actually down to 5-on-2 ½, and they tied the game on that play.”
The Stars continue their season-long seven-game homestand Thursday when the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, along with former Dallas goaltender Marty Turco, visit the Metroplex (7:30 pm start, FSSW). Chicago, who began the night alone in fourth with 84 points, did not play and now sit sixth.
“We’ll take tomorrow off,” Crawford said. “Our guys need to re-energize right now and they’ll re-energize and we’ll come back on Thursday morning and get prepared for Chicago.”
- With his big three-point evening, Benn extended his career-high scoring streak to eight, during which he’s scored 11 points (seven goals, four assists) to become the fourth Star to hit the 20-goal mark this season. He also fired a career-high eight shots on goal and was second on the club with six hits.
- Petersen’s goal was his first in 42 games played, dating back to Oct. 18, and he now has three points (one goal, two assists) in the last eight outings. His goal was also the 10th short-handed tally of the year for the Stars, which leads the Western Conference.
- Ribeiro’s goal was his fourth of the season in five games against San Jose and gives him seven points (four goals, three assists) in his last five contests.
- With an assist on Benn’s goal, Langenbrunner now has five points (one goal, four assists) in the last five games.
- Defenseman Alex Goligoski once again led the Stars in ice time, with 26:40, while finishing second on the squad with seven shots on goal, his highest single-game total since joining the Stars in a trade with Pittsburgh back on Feb. 21.
- Winger Adam Burish missed his second straight game due to a lower body injury. Sitting out as healthy scratches were defenseman Mark Fistric, for the third straight game, and forward Brian Sutherby for the fourth consecutive contest and eighth in the last 10.
- The Stars were 1-for-4 on the power play, leaving them 2-for-19 over the last six games overall.
Wrist shot -