DALLAS - This was one they absolutely had to have, and although they didn’t make it easy, the Dallas Stars came through in the clutch.
With their playoff hopes on the line, the Stars received a power play goal by Steve Ott in the first period, and goaltender Kari Lehtonen made it stand up with a 23-save shutout as they defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-0 Tuesday night at the American Airlines Center.
It was the second win in a row for Dallas following a potentially-devastating six-game losing streak (0-3-3). So now, with just three games remaining in the regular season, the Stars have 91 points, tied with Calgary in ninth place, two points behind Anaheim and Chicago for the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference. Both the Ducks and Blackhawks, who lost in overtime to Montreal earlier in the evening, also have three games left.
“It almost goes without saying, it was a huge win for our team,” coach Marc Crawford said. “It keeps us alive, it keeps our momentum moving forward. We’ve now got two wins in a row and obviously start our preparation for our next game against Colorado (Thursday night) almost immediately. You can savor these victories, but not for very long.”
“Our desperation’s obviously the highest it’s been all year,” said Ott, who snapped a five-game point drought. “This team’s resilience, the character that we’ve had all year on this team, we’ve had that underdog mentality all season. Everyone around the league, from the media to the league to our own fans have put this team down and for us, we’ve prided ourselves to be a team that competes every game. Right now it’s do or die and we handled it appropriately tonight. We’ve got three big, huge ones left and it’s going to be that one-game-at-a-time mentality until we see where the chips fall at the end.”
The fact that the win came over the Blue Jackets, who are out of the playoff chase in 13th and are now 1-5-3 in their last nine games and just 3-11-7 in their last 21, did not temper the Stars’ enthusiasm.
“It doesn’t matter who they’re against at this time of year, they’re all going to be intense games and we knew that Columbus would be intense tonight,” Crawford said. “They’re a very stingy club and I thought that for our group, this is always a tough game, when you come back from a road trip, the record for home teams that first game back is not very good. There’s got to be something to getting in late, and throwing off sleep patterns and all that sort of thing.
“I thought our guys had a great start and a great finish to this game and in between, we just hung around and maybe that’s the best we can say about our game tonight. Kari had to make a couple of saves, our defense was challenged a couple of times, but it was all manageable. I thought we got stronger in the third period.”
“These teams aren’t just going to lay down for us because they feel sorry for us,” Ott said. “Hockey players have too much pride to give in, even if you’re out of a playoff spot. They’re playing for jobs for next year, they’re playing to impress their scouts and management and they also want to be spoilers. For us, we need big, big games and to continue to find ways here.”
Lehtonen, who earned his third shutout of the season and 17th of his career, was solid when he had to be.
“It’s always nice when you don’t let any goals in, especially in a situation like this one where you have to win,” said Lehtonen, who was starting his 20 consecutive game. “That was good that I was able to do my part and the guys did their part and that usually equals two points.”
In addition to Ott’s goal, Loui Eriksson and captain Brenden Morrow added empty net goals in the final minute to make the final score look more lopsided than the game actually was.
Up 1-0 entering the final period, the Stars nearly made it a two-goal lead at 3:08 after a pretty spin-around pass from Mike Ribeiro in the left corner found Morrow all alone at the right side of the crease, but the captain shanked his one-timer attempt and Columbus goaltender Mathieu Garon managed to slide across the crease just in time to make the save.
Jamie Benn almost gave the Stars another one at 12:15, when he picked up a bouncing puck at the Columbus blue line and zoomed around the Blue Jacket defense before moving in alone on Garon, who made a nice stop on Benn’s point-blank backhander.
Dallas then dodged a bullet with 4:43 remaining in regulation, after Lehtonen first made a big shoulder save on Scottie Upshall’s fierce wrist shot from the right face-off circle. Then, after Upshall retrieved the loose rebound behind the net, his pass out front deflected up in the air and as it hit the back-checking Eriksson, Columbus’ Derek Dorsett checked Eriksson from behind, knocking him into Lehtonen.
So although the puck ended up in the net off Eriksson, Dorsett wound up in the penalty box for goaltender interference and the goal, of course, was waved off.
“I only saw Loui run into me,” said Lehtonen of the play. “I didn’t know what really happened, because I could only see Loui and I don’t think he’s going to run over me on purpose. I knew that something must have happened there, I wasn’t even sure the puck went in right away.”
It was the third straight time in the last two games that the puck entered the Dallas net and was subsequently determined to be no goal. But the Stars objected to calling them ‘breaks’ as opposed to the correct calls.
“It’s a break if it’s not the right call. When it’s the right call, it’s the right call,” Crawford said. “I do believe that when you work as hard our team has been working, then good things happen. We have to continue to keep that work ethic up where it’s been and above, if we can.”
“It’s nice, we had a lot of breaks go the other way, and now that it’s crucial time, it’s nice to see them go the other way,” Ott added. “I don’t know if it’s breaks or pretty good officiating. The Anaheim game, I thought they were two, I don’t know if they were gutsy calls, but they were the right calls and again tonight, it’s part of the rules.”
Each team had opportunities on the ensuing power play opportunity, but neither was able to convert.
With time winding down, the Blue Jackets pulled Garon for an extra attacker and shortly afterwards, Eriksson finally gave the Stars some breathing room when he stripped Upshall of the puck at center ice and fired into an empty net with 53 seconds to go.
Then, after Garon was pulled again, Morrow intercepted a Columbus pass in front of his own net and slid it all the way down the ice into the empty net with 19.2 seconds on the clock.
“It was huge, I think the way we played was good,” said Lehtonen. “We wanted to get a couple of goals there early and we were not able to and it ended up being a very tight game. It was nice, we played very well in our own end, there wasn’t anything crazy going on in front of me. The last two games have been really solid for us, it’s been great to get those two points and it’s nice to keep this thing going.”
The Stars got on the board first just five minutes into the opening period, on the first power play opportunity of the night, as Ott struck for his 12th goal of the season. Utilizing the prototypical power play objective, Brad Richards launched a wrist shot from the point and Ott, standing in front, made a nifty deflection to re-direct the puck past Garon.
“Any time you score and contribute, and on the top line with Morrow and Ribby, I want to help the team offensively as much as I can,” Ott said. “I was lucky enough to see a great shot by Richie, tip that in, and get us off to a good start to the game.”
“I think our guys, they recognize the importance of each power play,” Crawford said. “We’re trying to build momentum, even if you don’t score. It just seems like the goal we scored tonight, where we got it back, Brad found a shooting lane, got the shot through and Steve tipped it - that’s the kind of goals that get scored this time of year. You really have to be very basic. When you have an opening, it’s only there for a short, brief instant and if we can converge on the net and take advantage of those brief openings, I think we can continue to be successful.”
Columbus pushed back late in the period, boosted by consecutive power plays, generating several strong scoring chances. With 3:27 left in the first, Lehtonen made several stops at the right post on Antoine Vermette’s multiple attempts.
Then, with 1:45 remaining, Lehtonen made a sparkling save on Jakub Voracek’s uncontested point-blank wrist shot from the slot, then with the help of Alex Goligoski behind him, managed to scramble enough to keep the loose rebound out before it was cleared out.
Thanks to those power plays, Columbus ended the period with the last seven shots on goal, finishing with a 10-5 edge overall.
With a 1-0 lead heading into the second, the Stars were bailed out by a strong save from Lehtonen on Jared Boll’s backhander in front at 2:32, after another opposition scoring chance began when the puck hit the referee in the Dallas zone.
Following another Blue Jackets flurry around Lehtonen, Dallas went back the other way and would up with a 2-on-1 rush at 4:45, as Benn carried into the Columbus zone before feeding a cross-ice pass to Richards in the right circle, but Richards’ wrist shot sailed wide.
The Stars had a great opportunity with 3:50 left in the second when Tom Wandell, with a burst of speed in the right circle, cut behind the Columbus D and across the top of the crease before slipping a shot on goal, but Garon made a nice pad save.
The Stars get back at it on Thursday night when Colorado visits the Metroplex (7:30 pm start, FSSW). The Avalanche, already eliminated from post-season contention, are 14th in the West, but the Stars are not taking them lightly by any means.
“We played them twice early in the season and were not able to beat them, so I’m sure everybody’s going to be ready,” Lehtonen said. “It’s going to be a similar game to tonight, a lot on the line for us and not much for them. It’s going to be a battle to get those points.”
- Morrow’s goal was his team-leading 30th of the season, leaving him just two shy of his career-high set in 2007-08. He now has four points (two goals, two assists) in the last two contests. Along with Eriksson and Trevor Daley, Morrow fired five shots on goal to lead the squad.
- Richards’ assist on Ott’s goal gives him points in three straight (one goal, two assists) as well as five points in the four-game season-series between the clubs (four goals, one assist).
- Goligoski, who also picked up an assist, led the Stars in ice time with 25:33.
- For the second consecutive game rookie winger Tomas Vincour sat out as a healthy scratch. Defenseman Brad Lukowich sat out as well, as blueliner Mark Fistric returned to the lineup after missing one game with an upper body injury.
- Dallas went 1-for-5 on the power play, leaving them 5-for-22 over the last seven games, following a stretch in which they were just 1-for-19 in the previous five outings.
- The Stars finished the season with a stellar 14-5-1 record against Central Division clubs.
- The triumph was the 40th of the season for Dallas, marking the 12th time since they relocated from Minnesota in 1993 that they reached that plateau. In the 26 seasons the franchise was known as the Minnesota North Stars, they hit 40 wins just once.
1 - 0 DAL
2 - 0 DAL
3 - 0 DAL
Delay of game
Interference on goalkeeper