DALLAS – The Glen Gulutzan Era is off to a good start.
In the Dallas Stars head coach’s NHL debut, goals by Alex Goligoski and Jamie Benn, coupled with a spectacular goaltending performance by Kari Lehtonen, propelled the Stars to a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks Friday night at the American Airlines Center.
Gulutzan became the first coach in Dallas Stars history to win his first game with the club, and his team reflected the fast-paced, structurally-sound defensive style that he has preached all throughout the pre-season. Following a 6-1-0 pre-season, the process of the players learning and becoming more comfortable with his system has been a relatively smooth one.
“It’s a relief. Now I know I can win one,” joked Gulutzan, who worked the bench of the Stars’ AHL Texas Stars squad the two previous seasons. “I thought the guys played really good. I thought there’s room for improvement for us, for sure, a few little things that we want to do better. These first few games are full of emotion and adrenaline and sometimes you can get away from your structure. Chicago’s a hard team to play against in your home opener because they’re so pacey and they’re well-coached and they’ve got a lot of skill. The pace is the big thing and I thought we did a good job with it and we’ll get better with it as we go.”
“We know he’s a good coach, he’s a good fit here, and it was good to get that first win for him,” added Benn, who helped Gulutzan and AHL Texas reach the Calder Cup Finals in 2010.
Facing the team that edged them out last spring for the Western Conference’s last playoff spot, the Stars built a 2-0 lead and held on for the triumph at the end, after the Blackhawks scored with 13.6 seconds left in regulation to snap Lehtonen’s bid for his 18th career shutout.
Despite that disappointment, Lehtonen was outstanding, making 37 saves, including 22 in the second period alone. His excellence helped the Stars’ penalty kill unit nullify all four Chicago advantages, in which they fired 10 shots at him.
“All the penalties seemed to be for us,” said Lehtonen. “It was a tough task there but I think our penalty-killing unit played really well. They were shooting a lot but most of them were from the outside. It was a great battle today.”
“He had a great performance, I thought he was the difference,” Gulutzan added. “Kari was our backbone tonight.”
The PK unit was a particular area of emphasis after the Stars finished 23rd in the league in that category last season, and its success was a positive sign. Gulutzan deflected any credit for its improvement to associate coach Willie Desjardins and assistant coach Paul Jerrard.
“Willie and Paul have done a remarkable job, they’ve put a lot of work into that,” Gulutzan said. “I thought we did a good job penalty killing. You also need your goalie to have a good PK and I thought we got both tonight. We got saves, any penalty kill, you’re going to get chances and I thought Kari was equal and I thought we were good structurally with that.”
Following a scoreless first period, it took the Stars less than a minute to connect in the second, as Goligoski struck at the 59-secoond mark. After some sustained pressure in the offensive zone, Mike Ribeiro fed a pass out of the left corner to Goligoski breaking into the high slot, and the resulting one-timer beat Chicago netminder Corey Crawford over the glove hand.
The Blackhawks nearly tied it at 9:04 of the second on a power play, when Lehtonen made a sprawling save on Patrick Kane during a mad scramble in front.
Chicago ratcheted up the pressure and continued to pepper Lehtonen, but their best opportunity of the period probably came at 10:32 when Brandon Pirri fired a point-blank one-timer from the slot off a Blackhawks 2-on-1 rush that sailed just wide of the right goalpost.
Chicago was outshooting Dallas 20-4 to that point in the period, but the Stars weathered the storm before pushing back.
Benn made it 2-0 with 3:58 remaining in the second while both teams were skating with four men. Just six seconds after Chicago’s Marian Hossa entered the penalty box, Sheldon Souray unleashed one of his patented bombs from the top of the left face-off circle. Crawford made the save, but Benn pounced on the loose rebound, knocking the puck to his backhand and flipping it over Crawford’s outstretched glove hand.
“It was just a good shot by Souray there,” said Benn. “We all know he’s got a hard one, and I just picked up the rebound and had an open net there.”
“That was a bullet there and I just couldn’t hang onto it,” said Crawford said of Souray’s blast. “It kind of bounced out and I was so stretched out, I couldn’t do anything on the rebound.”
The potential for Souray’s shot to have an impact on the Dallas power play was a big reason he was signed to a free agent contract this off-season and the move has already paid dividends. Earlier in the game, Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson got hit by a Souray slap shot in the arm and struggled off the ice in pain and Gulutzan believed that also had something to do with it.
“Hard to handle shot, a great big blast there,” noted Gulutzan. “You hit one guy early, and then all of a sudden, everyone else is a little bit leery of going in there, and he gets a shot and the goalie has trouble with it. And Jamie Benn, he goes to the hard areas, he goes to the net and gets it in. We’re going to have to do as lot more of that, those type of goals where we get net-front presence and get shots to the net and get those kinds of ugly goals, because those make the difference.”
The Stars regained some life after that, pressuring the Blackhawks the rest of the period and outshooting them 8-2 over the final four minutes.
Entering the final period with a 2-0 lead, Dallas continued to push the pace of the game, seemingly with the territorial advantage over the first five minutes. Then Benn crushed Hjalmarsson through the glass in the right corner at 5:09, literally breaking the huge pane of glass and forcing a four-minute delay while the rink crew quickly replaced it.
“First time for me,” Benn said of the glass-breaking check. “I think the boys loved it out there, but I don’t know how many times I can do that again.”
Crawford made an alert save on Michael Ryder at 7:05, when Ryder came out from behind the net on his backhand for a stuff attempt at the right post.
The Blackhawks began to apply considerable pressure after that, with Lehtonen being forced to make several stops, including a big save on Hossa’s point-blank chance at 7:33 and again on Patrick Sharp in front at 11:33.
Following 26 seconds of delayed-penalty time, with a 6-on-5 advantage, the Stars nearly converted at 14:03 when Tom Wandell skillfully deflected Ribeiro’s shot from the right point.
Chicago wound up with the best chance on the power play, though, as Jamal Mayers stole the puck from Goligoski inside the Dallas zone and went in alone on Lehtonen with 5:02 remaining in regulation, but Kari got just enough of his wrist shot to deflect it wide.
The Blackhawks then pulled Crawford for an extra attacker with 2:38 to go in a final push and finally got one past Lehtonen with just 13.6 seconds on the clock when Nick Leddy ripped a slap shot from the left circle through a screen into the upper corner of the net.
“They have a lot of great players,” Lehtonen said. “I just try to do my best and win every game. Sometimes against the same team, it goes well for a while but it can change quickly.”
The Stars’ first scoring chance of the season came just 2:05 into the opening period, when Benn sped into the Chicago zone on a breakaway, but Crawford made a nice save on his backhand-to-forehand move.
Lehtonen came up two big saves at 3:35 when he turned aside Hossa’s long wrist shot, then made a sparkling skate save on the rebound.
Then, on the Stars’ first penalty kill of the year, Lehtonen denied Patrick Kane’s wrist shot from the left face-off circle at 5:18.
Benn had another prime opportunity with 24 seconds left in the period when he found himself alone in the right circle, but Crawford stopped his quick snap shot.
The two clubs go at it again Saturday night in Chicago (7:30 pm start, TXA-21), so expect more of the same in Game 2. Since Chicago could likely be a team they’re battling with for a playoff spot next April, these are still crucial points on the line.
“We have to clean up some things defensively, and it’s basically on transition,” Gulutzan said. “I thought our forwards blew the zone a little bit tonight. They’re a pinching team, so when teams pinch a lot, you have to be patient, you can’t cheat. I thought we did a better job in the third.”
- With the win/loss, the Stars are now 10-2-6 on opening night since relocating from Minnesota in 1993.
- In addition to scoring a goal, Goligoski fired a team-high five shots on goal and led the squad in ice time, logging 25:19, one second more than partner Stephane Robidas’ 25:18.
- Ribeiro, who led the entire NHL in pre-season scoring with 10 points (two goals, eight assists), earned his 498th career point with his assist on Goligoski’s goal.
- Demonstrating more of Gulutzan’s wish to be a hard team to play against, Dallas outhit Chicago 37-19. Defenseman Mark Fistric delivered a game-high eight, while Steve Ott totaled seven.
- Defensemen Nicklas Grossman (groin) and Adam Pardy (rib) each missed the opener due to injuries and will also likely sit out Saturday as well. Winger Adam Burish (groin) missed a chance to play his former club due to injury, while Krys Barch sat out as a healthy scratch.
- About midway through the second period, the video board showed former Star icon Mike Modano and the American Airlines Center crowd of 15, 285 gave him a standing ovation.