ST. PAUL – The playoff table was set for the Dallas Stars as they stepped onto the Xcel Energy Center ice late Sunday afternoon, but they just couldn’t gobble up the opportunity.
With their postseason lives on the line, the Stars were unable to muster one more crucial win in what has been a do-or-die week, losing to the Minnesota Wild 5-3 and falling short of snapping their two-year postseason drought.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” captain Brenden Morrow said in a somber Dallas locker room. “Maybe on the flight home it will set in, but right now we’re thinking about what just happened 10 minutes ago. It’s been a couple years of this, but I keep saying the same thing…it gives us motivation to go back and train.”
The Stars closed out the year in ninth place in the Western Conference, two points behind the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. But the way the Stars were ousted was perhaps even more heartbreaking.
Since last Tuesday they hadn’t had much outside help while they were stringing together four consecutive wins to keep themselves in the hunt. In the nine games since then that involved teams the Stars were chasing, all nine of the contests failed to fall Dallas’ way.
But the door suddenly swung wide open for the Stars earlier in the day when Chicago fell to Detroit. In the ultimate win it and you’re in it game, Dallas was unable to garner a victory against a Wild team it had beaten in three previous meetings this season.
“We just didn’t get it done in today in the end, but it wasn’t for lack of effort by our guys,” coach Marc Crawford said. “They tried their tails off tonight. I can list off a bevy of injuries that our guys have played through…Adam Burish playing with a broken leg, and Brenden Morrow hasn’t practiced in the last month-and-a-half. Yet they come in and find ways to play. I’m really proud of these guys. They just giving forth the effort.”
The game was the final one on the NHL schedule, and capped a frenetic final week in the league that featured teams in the West jockeying for playoff slots.
After a disappointing 0-3-3 skid, the Stars seemed sunk, but were able to rebound with those four straight victories to get into a position where they ultimately controlled their own destiny Sunday. In the end, though, fate was not on their side.
In a see-saw affair, former Star Antti Miettinen put the dagger in his old team’s heart when he potted the winner nearly seven minutes into the final frame to give the Wild a 4-3 edge. Pierre-Marc Bouchard finished it off with an empty-net goal with 13 seconds remaining.
Miettinen’s winner was set up by a nice feed from Andrew Brunette. From the lower-right circle Brunette slipped a pass to Miettinen at the bottom edge of the left circle, and he whipped the puck in.
“Personally being on the ice for (Miettinen’s) goal, and letting the guy get behind back-door is something that’s going to be in the back of my mind all summer,” Morrow said.
Kari Lehtonen, playing in his career-high 69th game, finished with 18 saves.
“When you look at it down the stretch, nobody gave us much of a chance,” Crawford said. “We had to play seven of our last nine on the road, we played six games in the last nine days to end the season, and they still kept giving effort and effort. It’s really heartbreaking that we didn’t get it completed. It was there for us.”
The Stars came out flying in the first period, and grabbed a 2-1 lead thanks to a 15-shot barrage. Despite Minnesota beginning to take over control in the second stanza, the Stars were still able to head into the third tied 3-3.
But Wild goalie Jose Theodore stood strong, blocking all 11 shots the Stars sent his way in the third, including a scintillating save on Steve Ott’s game-tying chance with 3:31 to go. From the lower-right circle, Ott drove hard to the net and tried jamming the puck past a sprawled Theodore, but the goalie miraculously stuck out his right arm along the ice to deny the chance.
With Lehtonen pulled for an extra attacker with over a minute to go, the Stars were unable to generate quality looks to net the equalizer.
Brad Staubitz, Jared Spurgeon, and Colton Gillies also scored for the Wild, who finished in 12th place in the West with 86 points (39-35-8). Theodore finished with 26 saves.
Down by a goal after one period the Wild tied the game at 2-2 with a power-play tally by Spurgeon at 7:19 of the second period. From the point, Spurgeon snuck into the right circle before one-timing Brunette’s pass past Lehtonen for his fourth goal of the year.
Minnesota then took a 3-2 advantage with 8:07 left in the middle frame on Gillies’ first goal of the year. He was able to out-maneuver Jamie Benn in front of the net to pick up a loose puck, then spun around and put a backhand in.
Goligoski got the equalizer while the Stars were on the two-man advantage with less than two minutes to go in the second to make it 3-3. The slick defenseman drifted into the high slot before ripping a slap shot that whizzed past Theodore, who was being screened by Morrow. It was Goligoski’s 14th of the season.
Minnesota struck first when Staubitz recorded his fourth of the year at 6:05 of the first period. The rugged forward picked up a loose puck in the slot off a rebound before going to his backhand to deposit it into the net.
Richards tied it with his 28th of the year with 7:32 left in the first. On a 2-on-1 break with Benn, Richards actually found Eriksson, who was charging up the middle of the ice to join the rush, in the high slot. Eriksson then slid it back to Richards, who one-timed a blast from the right circle.
Morrow then made it 2-1on the power play with his team-leading 33rd of the year. From the right faceoff dot Eriksson wristed a shot that Morrow deflected past Theodore on the short side with 3:53 remaining in the opening frame.
So the Stars now look to next year after forging to within a single victory of the playoffs in Crawford’s second season behind the bench.
“It’s a great group in there,” Crawford said. “It’s a great group of young players that are getting better, learning, and they got a vast amount of knowledge here over the last two months in this heated playoff race. We would have loved to be in the playoffs, that’s why you play this game, and that’s why it hurts so much right now.”