DALLAS - With their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the Dallas Stars once again came through in the clutch and remain alive in the Western Conference playoff chase.
Third period goals by captain Brenden Morrow and leading scorer Brad Richards helped the Stars fend off the Colorado Avalanche 4-2 score Thursday night at the American Airlines Center in what was basically a must-win game for Dallas.
It was the third straight triumph for the Stars following a debilitating six-game losing streak (0-3-3), and lifts them into ninth place in the West with 93 points, two back of both Anaheim and Chicago for the final playoff spots, with two games remaining for each club.
Both the Stars and Avalanche, who are 1-7-0 in their last eight and 3-16-1 in their last 20, will travel to Denver and play again Friday night, and the Stars will once again be faced with what is essentially another must-win game.
“This was the first step and we got to get a good little rest here and get ready for a big one tomorrow,” said Morrow, whose 31st goal of the season early in the third period stood up as the game-winner. “This is what we play the whole year for. All summer, you think about the workouts that you put in, it’s to be in position to win the Stanley Cup. We’re done with 80 of them, we have two left to win to give ourselves a chance. That’s what it’s all about. It’s pretty easy to get up for these games.”
“It was a good win. I think we’ll only get better from this,” added coach Marc Crawford. “Tomorrow night will be a huge challenge with Colorado in their building, the altitude and all those sorts of factors, but I really think our guys are up to it. They feel like they’re a team of destiny right now and they want nothing more than to win for each other and that’s a powerful quality to have as a group.”
For the Stars to get those crucial goals from their leaders Morrow and Richards was another good sign as far as Crawford was concerned.
“He is our captain and he’s a guy that lays his body on the line,” Crawford said of Morrow. “You should see how many ice bags this guy has on his body after a game. He hasn’t been able to practice for the last month, so that tells you how much he’s ailing. He’s not 100 percent, and yet he finds a way to get it done. That’s a big goal for us, because they were right there, they had some momentum in the second period and we squashed it. They came back again and the Richards line went out and they squashed it. Those answers to the adversity you face are so important, and it’s your veteran leader guys that are doing it for us right now.”
Dallas also received goals from Loui Eriksson and Tom Wandell, while Jamie Benn contributed two assists. In goal, Kari Lehtonen was solid once again, turning aside 21 shots while earning his 33rd victory of the season, one shy of the career-high 34 he earned in 2006-07 with Atlanta.
“It was a good win, we played very well and we were able to get some goals there. I didn’t have to do too much,” said Lehtonen, who started his 21st straight contest. “Every game’s so big and it’s an exciting time of year. It’s fun to play and we just have to keep going and keep playing the same way. If we work this hard, it gives us the best chance to win every night and we need to try to do it tomorrow night again.”
The Stars also received a shot of adrenaline with the return of winger Adam Burish to the lineup after sitting out the previous 11 games with a lower body injury.
“I felt really good, I felt pretty close to normal,” said Burish, who was eased back in with just 7:27 of ice time. “But the biggest thing is it’s just fun to be in the room, it’s fun to be on the bench with the guys, it’s fun to be going through warm-up with the guys. It was exciting to be back and I felt really good.”
With a 2-1 lead entering the final period, the Stars struck quickly to make it 3-1, as Morrow notched his fourth game-winner of the season 52 seconds in. Just eight seconds after Ryan O’Byrne was whistled for delay of game for shooting the puck into the crowd, Mike Ribeiro collected the puck behind the net and passed out to Eriksson in the right face-off circle and Eriksson relayed a one-touch pass over to Morrow at the left side of the crease for the easy tap-in.
“Tap-ins, I kind of like those, it’s tough to miss from a foot or two,” said Morrow of the play. “I think first Ribby made a good pass back to Loui and Loui faked the shot, kind of sold it, the goalie bit on it, so it was a good play all around.”
“You go into the third period and you get that power play and the power play delivers as quick as they did, as succinctly as they did, and the right guy scores, Brenden, the captain - that’s really a great message for our team to have absorbed,” Crawford said. “That was a huge goal we scored to take advantage of our power play chance in the third period.”
The Avalanche kept hanging around, though, and after some sustained pressure in the Dallas zone, pulled to within 3-2 on rookie Mark Olver’s second goal of the year at 11:06. Ryan Wilson had the puck low in the left face-off circle and fed it back in front, where Olver managed to re-direct it past Lehtonen.
Dallas responded just 1:15 later to restore their two-goal lead when Richards registered his career-high 27th goal of the season. Benn set up the play by stripping Colorado’s Shawn Belle (a former Stars first-round draft choice) of the puck in the right circle before firing a point-blank wrister that Avs goaltender Brian Elliott stopped, but the rebound fell right to Richards at the right post. Richards managed to pop the bouncing puck over the diving Elliott and it trickled just over the goal line before Belle could swipe it out.
“Big shift by Richie’s line,” Morrow said. “After (Colorado’s) goal, they got right back out, got the momentum for us. We’ve been pretty good about that all year, mentally tough, and when bad things happen, momentum gets taken from us, we’ve been pretty good at getting back out there quickly and taking it back.”
“I wasn’t happy with (Colorado’s second) goal, I was impatient,” said Lehtonen. “We were not able to get the puck out of our zone for a little while. It was tough to get scored on at that point to make it a one-goal game. It was nice the way the players reacted, went to the other end and scored right away.”
The Avs pulled Elliott for an extra attacker with about 1:30 left in regulation, and they did mount a late push, but were unable to get another one past Lehtonen, who made a sparkling diving save on Brandon Yip’s point-blank backhander with eight seconds on the clock.
“I thought that was very much like a third period in the playoffs, where you have to win battles and fight for pucks along the boards,” Crawford said. “There’s a lot of crashing and people really laying it on the line and I thought our team did a great job of it tonight. I never felt like we were in jeopardy. I thought our guys were pretty calm, they were going to the right places, they were winning a lot of the one-on-one battles that happened, beside the net, in the corners, especially at the blue lines.”
The Stars generated the game’s first scoring chance just 44 seconds into the opening period, as Ribeiro came in on Elliott on a breakaway, but he was unable to get a shot off after O’Byrne dove from behind and got his stick in the way.
Following another flurry in the Colorado zone, the Avalanche counter-attacked at 7:23 and Philippe Dupuis wound up taking off on a breakaway into the Stars’ zone, but Richards harassed him enough from behind that his sharp-angle shot from the right side of the crease turned into a routine pad save by Lehtonen.
Dallas surged late in the period, scoring two goals within a 1:35 span to bolt out to a 2-0 lead.
First, Wandell notched his seventh of the season on an outstanding individual effort followed by a fortunate bounce with 4:44 remaining in the period. Wandell chased down a loose puck along the left sideboards, avoided a check, and whirled around behind the Avalanche net before trying a wrap-around at the right post. The puck then ricocheted off O’Byrne in the crease, bounced off Elliott’s skate and trickled just over the goal line before Elliott yanked it out. After a brief video review that clearly showed the puck barely over the line, the goal stood.
Less than a minute later, the Stars almost got another one, but Morrow’s point-blank backhander deflected off Elliott’s blocker and then hit the post.
Eriksson made it 2-0 Dallas when he rocketed a one-timer from the left face-off circle over Elliott’s glove and into the upper corner of the net for his 26th goal of the season at 16:51. Benn and Richards won a battle for the puck along the left sideboards and Benn slipped a short pass to Eriksson.
Dallas wound up with a nice 13-7 edge in shots on goal and a two-goal lead heading into the second period, the first time since Feb. 24 against Detroit that the Stars led by more than a goal after one, a span of 18 games.
The Stars almost extended their lead to three 4:24 into the second after a nifty spin-around backhand pass from Ribeiro, who had just skated around the Colorado net into the right corner. The puck pinballed off Elliott’s stick, off the leg of Morrow crashing the net, and just over the crossbar.
The Avalanche began to ratchet up the pressure as the period approached the midway point, as Dupuis drilled a shot from a impossible angle in the left corner that clanked off the post at 9:42. The Stars couldn’t clear their zone, and eventually, Dupuis won a battle for the puck behind the Dallas net and fed a backhand pass out front to Yip, whose wrist shot beat Lehtonen just inside the left post to make it 2-1 at 10:15.
Dallas had another close chance with just 31 seconds left in the period when Benn carried into the Colorado zone, slipped around O’Byrne, and slid a nifty pass over to the slot, where Eriksson drilled a one-timer, but Elliott made a nice glove save.
After their regular season home finale, the Stars will finish on the road, starting with the second leg of their home-and-home set with the Avs Friday night (8 pm start, FSSW +) before winding up the schedule Sunday afternoon in Minnesota.
“Back to backs are hard against the same team,” Burish admitted. “They’re going home, so they’ll have some more energy and they’re playing for jobs, so these are tricky games, but if we play the way we did tonight and in the last few games, then we’ll be okay.”
“Teams that don’t have much to play for, they can scare you,” Morrow added. “I think we did a good job, we didn’t overlook them, we weren’t over-confident. You look around and guys are all playing for something. They’re playing for jobs, for contracts, for ice time - for teams that aren’t involved in the playoff push, there’s a lot for them to play for.”
The Stars, of course, will also be keeping an eye on Anaheim’s two-game set with Los Angeles, and on Chicago’s home-and-home series with Detroit, over the final weekend, but the true focus will on winning their last two.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence and that’s what you need at this time of the year,” Burish said. “You can only control your next game or your next shift. Who cares what Anaheim’s doing or what Chicago’s doing, really, as long as we keep getting wins and gaining confidence, which we are, we’re moving in the right direction, so I like the things we’re doing right now.”
- Richards’ two-point night leaves him with points in four straight contests (two goals, three assists) after not reaching the scoresheet in the previous three outings.
- Eriksson now has points in three straight games (two goals, two assists) after snapping a three-game point drought.
- Morrow’s goal, which gives him five points (three goals, two assists) in the last three games, leaves him one shy of his career-high of 32 set in 2007-08.
- Wandell’s goal was his first in 11 games, a span in which he’d recorded one assist.
- Benn’s two-assist night gives him six points in the last seven games (one goal, five assists).
- With his assist on Morrow’s goal, Ribeiro now has seven points (two goals, five assists) in the last eight contests.
- Fourth-line forward Toby Petersen was active all night, firing a game-high seven shots on goal, which matches his career-high set two times previously.
- Lehtonen played his 67th game of the season, leaving him just one appearance shy of his career-high of 68 from 2006-07.
- With Burish back in the lineup, forwards Krys Barch and Tomas Vincour sat out as healthy scratches, along with defenseman Brad Lukowich.
- Dallas went 1-for-5 on the power play, leaving them 6-for-27 over the last eight games, following a stretch in which they were just 1-for-19 in the previous five outings.