In a classic measuring stick game, the Dallas Stars received two goals from Michael Ryder and a goal and two assists from Jamie Benn to defeat the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.
Incredibly, the Stars’ fourth straight victory leaves them with an 11-3-0 record, which not only tops the Western Conference standings, but the entire NHL overall now.
Part of their recent surge has been powered by a suddenly potent offense, which has erupted for 17 goals in their last three contests, after scoring just 10 in the previous four.
“Things are going pretty good right now, and I think that’s because we’re playing a simple game and we’re playing the right way,” said Benn. “Guys are having fun and we’re all buying in and we’re getting points on the road.”
The Dallas power play unit has been a big part of that, as it has converted on 5-of-14 opportunities over that span, not including two other goals scored just as opposition penalties expired, meaning that essentially, the PP has operated at 50 percent.
In the second installment of a four-game Eastern road trip, the line combination of Benn, Ryder and Loui Eriksson, who earned an assist, was dominant once again for Dallas.
“Things are going pretty good right now,” said Benn, who now leads Dallas with 13 assists and 18 points. “Ryder got put on our line just before this road trip and it seems like we’re just clicking and we’re having fun out there.”
“Those two guys have been playing together for a little bit and this is my third game with them,” said Ryder, who has piled up seven points (three goals, four assists) in those three contests. “They’ve been flying and I’m just feeding off them. We got something going good right now and I think tonight, we got a good effort from everybody. I think we had a good game and came out with the two points, which we really wanted.”
In addition to the hot line, Adam Burish contributed a goal and an assist, while Eric Nystrom also found the back of the net.
Facing the highly-regarded Capitals, which entered the day as the last remaining NHL team with an unbeaten record at home (6-0-0), the Stars scored three third period goals, including two within a 32-second span, to break open a tight 2-2 contest.
Add it all up, and it equals a very impressive, pleasantly-surprising place where the Stars find themselves at this point in the season.
“This was an especially nice win because it was against an elite team,” said goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who made 30 saves to improve his individual record to a stunning 11-1-0. “And I’m sure a lot of people were watching this game to see how we do against a great team like Washington, so it’s nice to get a good victory.”
“It’s a good measuring stick for us,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “We’re trying to gauge ourselves against the league and coming into Washington and then heading to Pittsburgh and Detroit, we feel this is going to be a real good measuring stick. Tonight, we liked our game and it just gives us confidence moving forward.”
Deadlocked at 2-2 heading into the final period, the Stars struck quickly, pulling ahead 24 seconds in, just as their third power play of the game expired. After Mike Ribeiro won an offensive zone face-off against former Star Jeff Halpern, Brenden Morrow beat two Caps into the left corner and fed a pass out front to Burish. With Nicklas Backstrom hanging all over him, Burish deked to his backhand and as he was falling to the ice, jammed it behind Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
“It gives you that life you need,” said Gulutzan of the quick goal, “because when you’re in these one-goal games or tie games, and they’re hard-fought battles, then it just gives you a bit of a spark, and we played really good defensively. And I thought, as much as it gave us a spark, I think it took a little bit out of them, too. We needed that.”
“That was a big goal by Burish there,” said Benn. “It was a big goal to get us in the lead and we just kept going from there. And another great effort by Kari, he keeps us in there every game and gives us confidence.”
Benn then connected on a power play to give Dallas a two-goal lead at 7:33. After Neuvirth stopped Sheldon Souray’s bomb of a slap shot from the right point, the rebound ricocheted out to Benn in the high slot, where he drilled it into the open side of the net.
Nystrom put the game away just 32 seconds later, marking the third consecutive game he’s found the back of the net. On the rush into the Capitals’ zone, Nystrom cut in from the right face-off circle, sidestepping Washington blueliner John Carlson, and lifted a quick wrist shot over Neuvirth’s glove.
The Caps’ Matt Hendricks then picked a fight with Jake Dowell 56 seconds later, but it did not give Washington much of a spark, as the Stars ground them down the rest of the way.
“We don’t have all the best players in the world, but we keep trying, playing simple and it was really nice to see how we outworked them in the third,” said Lehtonen. “And it was fairly easy for me. I think I had two saves at the halfway mark and we’d scored three goals already, so that made it a lot easier for me.”
The Stars allowed the Caps to have the contest’s first scoring chance, just 1:50 into the opening period when rookie Cody Eakin intercepted Alex Goligoski’s pass inside the Dallas zone. Eakin carried into the high slot before unleashing a high wrist shot, but Lehtonen made the save – with his mask.
Dallas jumped on top 1-0 on Ryder’s first of the night at 10:32. Moments after what would have been a Stars’ icing was waved off, Trevor Daley kept the puck in at the point and cruised to the top of the left face-off circle before firing a high wrist shot that Ryder, standing in the slot, deflected about chest-high down and past Neuvirth.
Ryder had another chance at 14:11 when his point-blank backhander was denied by a nice save from Neuvirth.
The Capitals struck on a power play at 15:43 to tie it 1-1. Just 41 seconds after captain Brenden Morrow took an ill-advised hooking penalty at center ice, Backstrom fed a nifty backhand pass out of the right corner into the right circle, where Alexander Semin blasted a one-timer that beat Lehtonen just inside the left post.
It took the Stars just 1:33 to respond, when Ryder connected again with 2:44 left in the period. After receiving a slick cross-ice pass from Benn, Ryder drew Caps’ defenseman Roman Hamrlik to him low in the left circle, then seemingly having the puck on a string, swept around Hamrlik and deked Neuvirth out of the crease and from below the goal line, stuffed it inside the left post and in.
“I think our line was buzzing around there and we had some good chances,” said Ryder of the opening 20 minutes. “I think coming out of that period with two goals was pretty good. We said to each other, just keep going and try to help the team as much as we can and keep the momentum on our side.”
Up 2-1 entering the second period, the Stars had the first golden opportunity when Benn and Eriksson raced into the Washington zone on a 2-on-1 rush during 4-on-4 play 5:16 in. Eriksson accepted Benn’s pass in the right circle and fired a wrist shot that sailed wide of the right post.
It was the pair’s third 2-on-1 in the last two games, with Benn scoring on one of them in the previous game against Carolina.
About 10 seconds later, the Capitals nearly tied it on the counter-attack, as Carlson cut into the slot, but Lehtonen made a nice save on his backhander.
Semin nearly got another one for Washington at 14:15 when he drilled a slap shot from the right circle that clanged off the right post behind Lehtonen.
The Caps did tie it 2-2 with 4:04 left in the period that came directly after a Dallas icing. Off the ensuing face-off in the Stars’ zone, Marcus Johansson beat Vernon Fiddler on the draw and the puck ended up back at the right point, where John Carlson launched a blazing slap shot that skimmed off Lehtonen’s blocker and in.
The Stars’ Eastern road trip continues when they visit Pittsburgh on Friday (6 pm start, FSSW) to play the Penguins and former Star James Neal, who has gotten off to a strong start this year. There’s also been a lot of speculation that Sidney Crosby, who has missed the past 11 months recovering from a concussion, might return to the lineup for Pittsburgh, which leads the entire Eastern Conference standings with a 9-3-3 record.
It should be yet another good test for the Stars.
“This trip is a big trip for us,” Ryder said. “We wanted to make sure we got off to a good start our last game and we did that, and tonight, we wanted to make sure we kept it going, playing against a really good team and we did that, kept going a full 60 minutes and got the win.”
“We’re going to take tomorrow off and regroup a little bit,” reported Gulutzan. “We’re going to do some team-building tomorrow here in Washington and then we’ll fly on Thursday morning to Pittsburgh and get a good skate in and get ready for another really good team.”
- Ryder enjoyed his third straight multi-point game, a span in which he’s. Ryder recorded six shots on goal in the first period alone, surpassing his season-high by two just through 20 minutes, and ended the night with seven.
- Benn extended his scoring streak to six, amassing 11 points (three goals, eight assists) over that span.
- For Burish, his goal was his third of the season and stood up as the game-winner, the fifth of his career.
- Nystrom’s goal was his fourth in the last five games, after he totaled four in 82 games all of last year with Minnesota. He also delivered four hits, matching Stephane Robidas for the club high.
- Daley’s assist on Ryder’s first goal was the 99th of his NHL career. He also topped all Stars in ice time, logging 21:55, and blocked a team-high three shots.
- Eriksson’s assist leaves him with nine points (three goals, six assists) over his last five outings. His five shots on goal were second only to Ryder’s seven.
- Souray’s assist, in his fourth straight game on the scoresheet, leaves him with seven points (two goals, five assists) over that span.
- Radek Dvorak earned an assist on Nystrom’s goal, his fourth assist in the last five games after recording just one assist in the first nine of the season.
- Somewhat uncharacteristically, the Stars were actually dominated in the face-off circle, as Washington won 61 percent of the draws, 41-26. Individually, Fiddler, whose four-game point streak was snapped, went 5-11 at the dot, while Ribeiro was 5-12.
- Gritty forward Steve Ott missed his third straight game with a lower body injury, while defenseman Adam Pardy and forward Krys Barch sat out as healthy scratches.
- The win over the Capitals leaves Dallas with a somewhat stunning 15-1-4 record against Washington, outscoring them 73-41, since 1996.
- Dallas is now 3-0-0 against Eastern foes this year after registering an 11-5-2 mark against the East last season.