SAN JOSE – Mired in an unfortunate slump at the most inopportune time, the silver lining for the Dallas Stars is that the playoff door still remains ajar. The opening, though, is starting to get smaller and smaller to squeeze through.
San Jose’s Antti Niemi made 29 saves for his sixth shutout of the season, sending the sliding Stars to a painful 6-0 defeat on Thursday night at HP Pavilion.
The loss kept the Stars (38-27-11) from gaining any precious ground in their late-season playoff push. Dallas remains in ninth place with 87 points, three behind eighth-place Chicago for the final Western Conference postseason spot.
With six games left -- four of which are on the road -- the Stars, who fell to 1-4-3 in their last eight, certainly have their work cut out for them if they want to snap their two-year playoff absence.
“It was a bit of a mess, but we live to fight another day,” captain Brenden Morrow said. “These are the big ones. We’re running out of games. We’ve been saying that we’ve got games, we’ve got points, but we’re running out of them. It’s starting to be do or die. It’s very important to us. Playoffs is what it’s all about, and the Stanley Cup. We want an opportunity to do that.”
After an early surge, the Stars eventually began to wilt against a Sharks team that clinched a playoff berth with the win. San Jose has captured six of its last seven, and improved to an amazing 24-4-4 since January 15, with one of those regulation losses coming against Dallas.
Still, the Stars had high hopes against the surging Sharks coming in. After all, they had won three of the five meetings between the two teams this season, and been victorious in four of their last five visits to San Jose.
But the good feelings began to shrivel in the second period. Down by a goal, the Stars were handed three power-play opportunities in the pivotal middle frame, but were unable to cash in on any of them to either tie the game or take the lead. Instead, the Sharks built up their advantage with a pair of goals -- including one with the man advantage -- that slowly began to suck the life out of the Stars.
In the third, Patrick Marleau quickly shot down any comeback thoughts Dallas had when he popped in his 34th of the season with a wrist shot from the left circle just 2:30 in to give the Sharks a 4-0 lead. The goal iced the game while chasing Kari Lehtonen, who made his 17th straight start.
“We played a first period that had lots of battle in it, but it didn’t seem like we were able to match them in the second and third,” coach Marc Crawford said. “They looked like a lot fresher club than we did. That’s no excuses for us. We got beat, and we got beat soundly. We just have to be more determined than we showed. It’s not good enough, and we know it’s not good enough. The consolation is that we live to fight another die, but on the other side of it it was the whole group that wasn’t good enough.”
Lehtonen allowed four goals on 33 shots before being lifted for Andrew Raycroft. Raycroft surrendered two goals on 19 shots.
“Our game plan was to be aggressive, but I think we were a little guilty of getting too aggressive on forechecks,” Morrow said. “It’s a pretty opportunistic bunch, and they’ll make you pay when you make mistakes.”
Marleau scored twice in the third, and Dan Boyle, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Ben Eager also tallied for the Sharks (45-23-9), who leapfrogged Detroit into second place in the West.
“Our team gets life off of scoring and values the offensive side of the game to a great degree, and we’ve played terrific defense for the last month, but that was a bad game for us, especially the last two periods,” Crawford said. “Give the Sharks credit. This is one we throw in the garbage can.”
Up by a goal after 20 minutes, San Jose pushed its lead to 2-0 on Couture’s power-play goal 4:30 into the second period. The slick rookie notched his 31st of the season when he gloved the puck down out of mid-air in front before neatly tucking it into the net on the backhand.
Vlasic then gave San Jose a commanding 3-0 lead with his third of the year with just 95 seconds left in the second period. From the left point the defenseman shot a rolling puck that knuckled past Lehtonen.
The Sharks jumped out to a 1-0 lead with 3:48 left in the first period when Boyle knocked in a rebound for his seventh of the season. Lehtonen was able to make a pad save on Joe Pavelski’s backhand after the forward made a nifty spin-o-rama move in the left circle before Boyle chipped in the loose puck in tight.
Lehtonen then made a pair of outstanding saves late in the frame on Devin Setoguchi. On a partial breakaway from the blue line, Setoguchi’s wrist shot was first denied, then Lehtonen gobbled up the forward’s own rebound attempt.
“They were quick on pucks and just more ready than we were,” Stephane Robidas said. “They took advantage of it. They made quick plays, and put a lot of pucks at the net. It’s tough to win when you give up that many shots. They were the better team, simple as that.”
The Stars will conclude their final western road swing of the season over the weekend, with stops in Los Angles (3 p.m., TXA-21) on Saturday and Anaheim (7 p.m., FS-SW) on Sunday. The Kings had their four-game winning streak snapped Thursday at Vancouver, while the Ducks sit in seventh place in the West with 93 points.
“Every game means so much, and the next game is no different,” Robidas said, “We have to approach it almost like it’s a Game 7 every night.”