NASHVILLE - As gut-wrenching as the Dallas Stars’ 4-3 overtime loss to Anaheim was Wednesday, this one was even worse.
With the Stars opening a five-game road trip that will define their entire season, they surrendered several goals on costly giveaways in their own zone and could not capitalize on a late power play that could have tied it, ultimately falling 4-2 to the Nashville Predators Saturday night at the Bridgestone Arena.
At least Wednesday, the Stars received a point in the standings, despite the Ducks’ game-tying goal with 5.4 seconds left - this loss is even more devastating because the Stars, who are now just 1-3-2 in their last six, remain at 86 points, sitting ninth in the Western Conference standings.
That puts them a full six points behind the Predators, who won their sixth straight game and have an 8-1-0 mark in their last nine to move into a fifth-place tie with 92 points. With just eight games remaining, six of which are on the road, the Stars are two points back of defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago now for the eighth and final playoff spot.
“I don’t know if we all realize exactly what the record has been, but I think we all know the situation we’re in,” said captain Brenden Morrow, whose second period goal tied the game 2-2. “We need to collect points and tonight was another missed opportunity. That’s a great team over there, they do things the right way, they play hard, you got to really work for everything against them, but tonight was another missed opportunity. It feels like we’ve had a lot of those lately.”
The thing is, despite being outplayed for large stretches of the game, the Stars were right there at the end with a chance to send it into overtime and gain at least one point. Instead, an empty net goal by the Predators with 3.6 seconds to go made the final score look worse than it was.
In addition to Morrow, Alex Goligoski scored for Dallas, while Mike Ribeiro contributed two assists in an outstanding performance. In goal, Kari Lehtonen made his 15th consecutive start and made 29 saves.
“We battled hard tonight, but for the most part, the last few games, it’s just been execution at certain times,” said center Brad Richards. “Our battle level’s there, our care - we’re trying to do everything for the good of the group, but I’ve said it before, I keep saying it - there’s lots of hockey left and win or lose tonight, we weren’t in the playoffs, so we still know that this road trip is a huge part of the season and we’re going to keep battling.”
Trailing 3-2 entering the final period, the Stars had a chance on the power play five minutes in, but despite controlling the puck in the Nashville zone for most of it, were unable to get the equalizer.
Then the Stars dug in and killed off a Predators power play, with Lehtonen coming up with a strong save on Ryan Suter’s point-blank snap shot at 8:31.
Dallas had a good opportunity when Jamie Benn spun out from behind the net and tried a backhand wrap-around at the left post with 7:51 remaining in regulation, but Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne made the stop.
With the Stars thinking offense, the Predators almost sealed it when Martin Erat fired a point-blank wrist shot from the left side of the crease that beat Lehtonen but clanked off the near-side post with 3:44 to go.
Dallas got the power play chance they needed with exactly 2:00 left in the third period after Suter leveled Benn against the boards, and the table was set for some more late heroics that they the Stars have been able to execute so many other times this season.
It was not to be. In fact, Nashville had a chance to end the drama with 1:06 remaining when Nick Spaling raced in on a breakaway, but Lehtonen got a piece of his wrist shot to give the Stars another chance.
After Lehtonen left the ice for an extra attacker with 43 seconds on the clock, the Stars’ had one last rush up ice and with 16 seconds to go, Benn fired a wrist shot from the right circle, but Rinne made the save.
Then with nine seconds left, Ribeiro set up Benn again in the high slot for a golden opportunity, but this time Benn’s one-timer was blocked in front by Shane O’Brien.
An empty-netter from center ice by David Legwand with 3.6 seconds remaining just rubbed salt in the wounds.
“It was a game towards the end there where there wasn’t going to be much great plays made because it wasn’t a great surface tonight,” Crawford said, citing sludgy ice conditions. “So you had to be very direct and you had to get pucks to the net and you had to jam and get rebounds and that sort of stuff. It was like that from almost the 10-minute mark of each period. We had a couple of great plays at the end, they made a couple of good blocks, give them credit for that.”
“It’s an advantage for us with the extra guy, but there’s a lot of sloppiness going on late in games,” Morrow added regarding the final power play chance. “The ice isn’t great and there’s isn’t a whole lot of room out there when there’s 10 skaters, so you just kind of throw it at the net and hope something happens and the bounces didn’t go our way.”
The Stars did capitalize on their first power play of the night to the much-sought-after first goal at 8:49 of the opening period. After Ribeiro won a battle for the puck along the left sideboards, he got the puck to Loui Eriksson in the left circle and Eriksson slid a nice cross-ice pass to the charging Goligoski, who fired a quick wrist shot past Rinne’s blocker.
Nashville tied it with 5:34 left in the period on David Legwand’s 16th goal of the year. After a Dallas turnover in their own zone, Erat retrieved the puck behind the Stars’ net and swept out to the left side of the crease, backhanding a sharp-angle shot that Lehtonen stopped, but the rebound squirted right out in front, where Legwand charged in and popped it between Lehtonen and the post.
The Predators controlled the first few minutes of the second period, generating several outstanding chances. Jordin Tootoo nearly got one just 1:20 in when he lifted a sharp-angle backhander from the right side of the crease that clanked off the crossbar and bounced out the other side.
Nashville got the go-ahead goal just over a minute later after the Stars failed on several occasions to clear the zone. Patric Hornqvist won a battle for the puck in the right corner and then passed out to Mike Fisher (perhaps better known as Carrie Underwood’s husband) in the right circle, and Fisher drilled a one-timer off the left goalpost and in at 2:33.
Dallas managed to swing the momentum back in their direction on one of the craziest goals you’re likely to see when Morrow notched his team-leading 28th of the season at 4:23. Reaching a loose puck in the left corner, Morrow spun and flipped it towards the front of the net, but it first deflected off the shaft of Blake Geoffrion’s stick, then popped up in the air over the side of the net, hit Rinne in the back of the head and bounced down just over the goal line.
Unfortunately for the Stars, another turnover inside their own zone allowed the Predators to take the lead again when Fisher scored his second of night at 9:57. This time an errant pass from Jeff Woywitka wound up on Suter’s stick at the point in the middle of the ice and although Lehtonen stopped it, Fisher grabbed the rebound as he cruised through the slot and backhanded it into an open net.
The Stars came back the other way, almost evening it up again about a minute later when Benn fed a pass out of the right corner to a charging Tomas Vincour in the high slot, but Rinne came up with a nice pad save on Vincour’s one-timer.
The Stars actually get a couple of days off to regroup and will return home before continuing their crucial road trip, which features matchups against each of the Stars’ Pacific Division rivals, beginning with a date Tuesday night (9 pm start, FSSW) in Phoenix against former coach Dave Tippett and the Coyotes. Despite losing earlier in the night to San Jose, the Coyotes sit fourth in the West with 93 points.
Obviously, given their desperation in the playoff chase, that becomes the biggest game of the season for the Stars.
“Our work ethic was there tonight, we had guys battling and we made a couple of mistakes, they capitalized on a couple of plays,” Crawford said. “It was a one-goal game, that’s exactly what it was and what we thought it would be, we just ended up on the wrong side of it. We have to keep persevering here and we will.”
“There’s no time to sit and lament and get down on yourself or your team,” Richards added. “We’ve done a lot of good things over the last two weeks, but for whatever reason, it’s not going our way at certain points. If we stay positive, everything could go our way for the last eight games and you get all those little breaks or turning points and they go your way. You never know what can happen. We’re going to stick with it. We’re not going home tonight thinking anything different than we were going into Wednesday’s game. We’re still right there.”
- Goligoski scored for the third straight game and the fourth time in 15 games since joining the Stars in a trade with Pittsburgh on Feb. 21. It was his 13th of the season overall. Goligoski also led all skaters with a whopping 31:54 of ice time, which is more than half the game.
- Morrow’s goal gives him four points (two goals, two assists) in the last four games.
- With two assists, Ribeiro now has 50 on the season to become just the fifth player in franchise history to hit that plateau three times in a Stars uniform.
- Eriksson has two points (one goal, one assist) in the two games since returning from a two-game absence due to concussion-like symptoms.
- One game after his career-long 10-game scoring streak was snapped, Benn picked up an assist and now has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in his last 12 outings. Benn led the squad with five shots on goal.