COLUMBUS – The Stars may begin games slowly, but they’re off to a lightning-fast start to the young season thanks in large part to their red-hot goalie.
Kari Lehtonen was once again stellar in the Stars’ 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday night. After being named one of the NHL’s Three Stars for his dominant play last week, Lehtonen followed up the award with yet another brilliant game, stopping 38 shots to help the Stars move to a sparkling 5-1-0 mark.
Jamie Benn had an electrifying goal and assist, and Steve Ott and Michael Ryder added tallies for Dallas, which swept the winless Blue Jackets in the home-and-home series that began with a 4-2 victory on Saturday at American Airlines Center.
“I’m just trying to be patient,” Lehtonen said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It went good, and you have to be happy about it. When things are going well, of course it feels fun, and it’s nice to play. You don’t want to say that it gets easier, but you get lucky sometimes when things are going well. You have to keep working and hoping that it stays the same way.”
Playing without injured star center Jeff Carter, the Blue Jackets came out strong and continued to push the Stars throughout the contest. They outshot Dallas by a 12-4 margin in the first period, and held a 24-11 advantage through the first 40 minutes. But Lehtonen withstood the pressure, and the Stars hung on at the end when the Blue Jackets pulled goalie Steve Mason and played with the extra attacker over the final 85 seconds.
“We had a lot of different momentum swings,” Ott said about the first two frames. “We put some solid shifts together and a few key things that were working well for us, but they seemed to outwork us.”
That hard work, though, didn’t pay off because of Lehtonen, who has been at the end of a firing range in all but one of his five appearances. He’s absorbed over 30 shots in four of his starts, with the lone reprieve being the 15 attempts the Blue Jackets sent his way Saturday.
“He’s making all the difference in the games right now,” said defenseman Sheldon Souray, who added an assist on what proved to be the winning goal by Ryder. “We’ve done some good things and put some stretches in periods together, but we’ve had some where we’ve sat back and take a lot of shots. When we have, he’s made the saves and been the difference for us.”
Dallas has now beaten Columbus in four of the last five meetings, and improved to 14-4-3 at Nationwide Arena.
“It’s a lot better than starting off slowly,” Lehtonen said about Dallas’ shiny overall record. “It’s huge to get the wins early and hopefully we can play solid from here on out.”
Derick Brassard and Kris Russell scored, and Mason finished with 15 saves for the Blue Jackets, who fell to 0-5-1 on the season. They entered play Tuesday night as one of two teams still to earn a win – the New York Rangers were the other club.
“We’re sticking together,” Souray said. “Our penalty kill was good tonight, and our team game for periods is good. There’s little stretches where we lay back and get ourselves in a little bit more trouble, but we’re there for each other. Guys are sticking with it and buying into the team game.”
Up by a goal entering the third, Benn pushed the lead to 2-0 with a marvelous individual effort early in the final stanza. Starting along the boards at the Columbus blue line, he first chipped the puck away from Russell, then slid it around Rick Nash and defenseman Aaron Johnson before pulling the puck away from Mason’s poke check attempt and whistling a shot in.
“I just tried to tip it in, and got kind of lucky there,” Benn said. “The goalie poked, and I guess it was just luck.”
Lehtonen believed it was more than just a fortunate break for the 22-year-old forward.
“It was amazing,” Lehtonen said about Benn’s dazzling display. “He’s so good at stealing pucks, and when he gets a little bit of time, it’s usually in the back of the net. It was a huge goal.”
Brassard closed the gap to 2-1 with a power-play goal 5:06 into the third. After Lehtonen spit out Nash’s slap shot from the high slot, Brassard collected the rebound, brought it to his forehand, and wristed it in.
But Ryder’s second of the season gave the Stars’ their two-goal cushion back just 81 seconds later. Souray, who was in the penalty box when Brassard scored, got some redemption when Ryder deftly deflected his shot from the left point.
Russell made it 3-2 with less than three minutes to go when he picked up a Tom Wandell turnover at the blue line before unleashing a blistering slap shot that beat Lehtonen low and to the glove side.
“I thought with them coming out with a lot of energy we were good for the first 30 minutes,” coach Glen Gulutzan said. “The last eight minutes of that second period we turned the puck over three times and they got their flurry of chances from that. That’s when Kari was the difference. We just need to do a better job at getting pucks deep, and protecting leads.”
After a scoreless first period, the Stars struck first when Ott notched his second of the season 4:17 into the middle frame. Off the rush with linemates Loui Eriksson and Benn, Ott received a pass from Eriksson at the top of the right circle and ripped a snap shot into the top-left corner that eluded Mason’s glove hand.
“We’ve been practicing that a lot lately…you want both guys going hard to the net and put it in the pillows, and hopefully you get a rebound out of it and one of the two guys score,” Ott said. “Fortunately it snuck through him and found a way in.”
The Blue Jackets thought they had taken a 1-0 lead five minutes into the game, but Johnson’s wrist shot from the high slot that harmlessly slid past Lehtonen was waved off after it was ruled that Columbus forward Derek Dorsett had interfered with Lehtonen right before the shot.
“We knew they were going to come out with a strong work ethic, and they did,” Souray said. “We stuck with it and our goalie made the difference.”
The Stars will continue their four-game road trip on Friday in Anaheim against the Ducks (9 p.m., FS-SW). Anaheim has won four straight after a season-opening loss to Buffalo in Europe to surge to the top of the Pacific Division alongside the Stars.