DALLAS – The transition process seems to be going quite well.
Just 11 games in the Glen Gulutzan era, the Dallas Stars appear to be picking up their new head coach’s system and adjusting smoothly to it, and their performance Saturday night in a 3-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils at the American Airlines Center proves it.
In a hard-fought, defensive battle, the Stars received a typical ‘greasy’ goal from Vernon Fiddler in the third period that stood up as the game-winner and had to kill off what was effectively a 6-on-4 disadvantage over the final minute before Sheldon Souray’s empty net goal sealed the triumph.
Loui Eriksson also scored for Dallas, while even though the Stars were outshot 32-23, they received another stellar effort from goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who made 31 saves to improve his season record to 8-1-0.
The win improves Dallas to 8-3-0 on the season, good for first in both the Pacific Division and the entire Western Conference as they complete one of the most productive Octobers in club history. Dallas is now 5-1-0 on home ice, 6-1-0 when outshot and 5-1-0 when scoring the first goal.
“I thought it was a hard-fought win,” said Gulutzan, whose record is the best-ever for a Stars coach through his first 11 contests. “I thought the first period was even, but I thought they took it to us in the second, they came out real, real hard. And I thought we came out real hard in the third, we got a bounce there at the end and we’ll take the two points. I thought it was a good effort, it was a pretty good hockey game.”
“They’re kind of known for playing a tight, defensive game and they did that tonight,” defenseman Alex Goligoski said of the Devils. “We were able to get a couple of goals and defensively, we were pretty good. I think Gully stressed that in training camp and we know that we’re going to play in a lot of tight games the way we play and we just have to get comfortable playing in them. Thankfully, we’ve gotten there quick, we seem to be settling in, we get those one-goal leads and feel pretty comfortable with them.”
With a five-day break coming up, the Stars feel pretty good about where they are and how they got here, and their performance on this night epitomizes what they’re trying to accomplish this season.
“Looking at the first 10-game segment, if you’d asked any one of us at the start of the season if we’d take 7-3, we’d all sign up for that, and here we are at 8-3, that’s a pretty good month,” said captain Brenden Morrow. “We’re pretty happy with our start. It’s a process, the whole season, you want to keep revving things up so you’re playing your best hockey in March and April. Last year, we kind of tailed off a little bit, but that’s going to be a focus of ours every day, just putting the time and work in, play with pace so everything becomes a habit.”
While Lehtonen had a strong night, he didn’t need to steal this one unlike some games earlier in the season.
“It was a pretty nice game to play for me,” said Lehtonen. “They got some shots, but I was able to see most of them and I think our penalty killing was really good too. It was a tight game and we kind of played the same way the Devils usually play, and we were able to get the one crappy goal at the end.”
“I certainly like our last six games better than our first five,” Gulutzan said. “That’s a positive. You’re going to get into these games where you get outshot, maybe out-chanced and you find a way to win. If you play a certain way over 82 games, then you’re going to have a level of success. The first five games we were talking about Kari quite a bit and he was solid tonight, but he didn’t have to stand on his head to get the win for us and I think that’s a positive for us.”
Entering the final period tied 1-1, the Stars had the first good chance at 4:07 when Jamie Benn received a Steve Ott pass in the slot and drilled a one-timer that Devils goaltender Johan Hedberg made a nice save on. Trevor Daley was in front and took multiple whacks at the rebound, but Hedberg, a former Star, held his ground.
The Stars jumped ahead on Fiddler’s second goal of the season at 11:34, when he curled out from behind the Devils’ net and banked the puck off New Jersey defenseman Mark Fayne’s skate and between Hedberg’s pads.
“He’s just a worker,” said Gulutzan of Fiddler, who signed as a free agent in July. “He’s good in the (face-off) circle, he’s a guy that has high character, so he’s perfect for any team, but especially us. We’re real fortunate to have him.”
Dallas had several opportunities late as well, as Hedberg came up with the stop on Benn’s wrister from the slot on a 2-on-1 rush with 5:20 left in the period, and again on Mike Ribeiro’s off-speed pass attempt from 15 feet inside the blue line about 1:10 later.
The Devils pulled Hedberg for an extra attacker with 1:24 to go in regulation, and then Michael Ryder was whistled for a questionable interference penalty with 1:02 on the clock.
The PK then went to work, denying shooting and passing lanes and not really allowing any good scoring chances before Souray’s slap shot from his own zone entered the empty net with 2.7 seconds left.
“The PK was excellent, and I don’t think they even got a shot in that last minute, so that was huge,” said Lehtonen. “It was just a battle and a good two points.”
“I think we did a good job of being aggressive and forcing them, when pucks were bouncing and not getting set up and making plays,” said Morrow of the penalty killing unit, which went 3-for-3 on the night. “And when they did set up, we were in lanes, we’ll clog the middle and force them to shoot from the perimeter.”
Despite the fact that the Devils seemed to have had the territorial advantage through the first half of the opening period, the Stars were able to connect for the contest’s first goal at 10:51. After a slick give-and-go out of the right corner with Steve Ott, Eriksson unleashed a scorching wrist shot from the slot that went top-shelf (‘where Mama keeps the cookies’) over Hedberg’s blocker.
The Stars had a chance to go up by two with 6:35 remaining in the period while on a power play when Ott rifled a wrister from in front, but Hedberg came up with a big blocker save.
While New Jersey pressured the Stars significantly through the first half of the second period, their best chance came at 6:10 when Ilya Kovalchuk wound up with the puck alone in front staring at an empty net, but he fanned and overskated the puck as Lehtonen scrambled back into position.
The Devils tied it up at the 12-minute mark on Petr Sykora’s first goal of the season. Immediately after Patrik Elias beat Fiddler on a face-off in the Dallas zone, he pulled the puck back to Sykora, who painted the upper far corner with a lethal snap shot.
A late power play opportunity assisted the Stars apply considerable sustained pressure over the final seconds. Ryder had a prime chance at the left side of the crease, but drilled it just side with 14 seconds left.
Overall, the Stars were outshot 12-4 in the period, but were still even at 1-1.
The Stars will get a bit of a rest now, having off until next Friday, Nov. 4 when they welcome the Colorado Avalanche to the American Airlines Center (7:30 pm start, FSSW).
“I think it’ll be good for us,” said Goligoski of the upcoming break. “We’re a little tired, we’ve played a lot of games here, so it’ll be good to get some rest, take a couple of days off, and get back at it, and just keep it going.”
“We do have some nicks and bruises,” said Gulutzan. “Steve Ott was a guy tonight that was in complete discomfort, he played through that tonight and that was a big thing for us. So having two days next week that we’re going to take entirely off, that’s a big thing for those guys. For us, it comes at a good time.”
- Souray’s empty netter at the end was the 99th goal of his NHL career. He fired four shots on goal for the night, tying Trevor Daley for the team lead.
- Eriksson’s goal was his team-leading sixth of the season.
- Ott’s assist on Eriksson’s goal gives him eight points (two goals, six assists) in the last 10 games.
- Morrow was in the lineup for the 760th regular season game of his career, tying former Minnesota North Star Curt Giles for sixth on the franchise’s all-time games played list.
- During the first intermission, Texas Rangers stars Derek Holland and Mike Napoli participated in a competition that had each shooting pucks into an empty net from the blue line, prompting several loud ovations.
- General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk was honored in a 12-minute ceremony before the game for his upcoming induction in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He received a Breitling watch from Bachendorf’s Jewelers as a gift from the players, as presented by Morrow, and a special Hall of Fame plaque that will eventually become part of the proposed ‘Walk of Legends.’
Wrist shot -