PITTSBURGH – In a battle between the NHL’s two top teams, number two defeated number one.
Unfortunately for the Dallas Stars, who entered the day sitting atop the entire NHL standings, they were unable to contain the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins and former Star James Neal scored two power play goals to lead the Penguins to a hard-fought 3-1 victory Friday night at the CONSOL Energy Center.
Three days after they took down the Capitals 5-2 in Washington with a masterful third period, the Stars watched Neal snap a 1-1 tie in the third period and then surrendered a penalty shot goal to Matt Cooke to provide the final margin.
The loss snaps the Stars’ four-game winning streak, dropping them to 11-4-0 on the season, and allows the Penguins to usurp them for first overall in the league, while Chicago’s win over Calgary pushes them past Dallas into the Western Conference lead.
There was a lot of hype surrounding the contest, going even beyond the 1 vs. 2 storyline, because there had been some speculation that injured star Sidney Crosby might return to the Penguins’ lineup for the first time in 11 months, but in the end, he did not.
“We didn’t have the normal jump we usually do,” said winger Eric Nystrom, who scored the Stars’ only goal. “We had a tough time getting our legs going tonight and those nights happen. It’s disappointing because you’re on a stage like that to play your best and you don’t play your best - that’s the most disappointing thing. We’re a lot better team than that, it was just one of those nights.”
Then there was the matter of the two clubs facing each other for the first time since their big trade last Feb. 21, when Dallas sent Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh in exchange for defenseman Alex Goligoski.
Not only did Neal score two goals, but Goligoski sustained an upper body injury after he was hit by a shot from Chris Kunitz in the first period and did not return. It appears he will be out for Saturday’s game in Detroit and he’ll be evaluated further in Dallas.
“Bad timing,” said Goligoski, who played just 6:48. “I haven’t been hurt that often and then to come back here, there’s nothing you can do about it. I think it was maybe my second shift of the game. Kunitz just kind of rolled up high and I was shadowing him a little bit and he turned around and took a shot, and the puck just got me on the wrong spot there on the hand, so it happens. It’s tough, a tough place to do it, but it’s part of the game. I think I’m going to go back to Dallas and have it looked at and see what happens.”
“It’s too bad Goose couldn’t go through the whole game tonight for us, because he was amped up,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said. “Goose is going to have some x-rays here, but I think he’s probably going to be out for a little bit.”
In fact, the Stars actually spent part of the night with just four defensemen after Mark Fistric took an errant puck in the throat with 6:39 left in the second and left for the remainder of the period, although he did come back for the third.
“Fisty’s going to be fine,” Gulutzan reported. “He took a shot right in the throat there, which they have to be careful of, so that’s what he missed most of the second with, but he came back and he should be fine moving forward. When you play four D, it’s tough, but we were a little outplayed from the start of the game.”
While Nystrom supplied the offense, goaltender Kari Lehtonen started his seventh straight contest and delivered another strong performance, making 29 saves and keeping the Stars in the game.
“We knew we could play better, and over time, consistency’s going to win and they stuck to their game plan and we couldn’t find a way to generate ours,” said Nystrom. “They just chipped away at us and wore us down a bit, kind of did what we like to do to teams. It works, they just played their game tonight and outworked us and the result is what it is.”
Tied 1-1 entering the final period even though the Penguins led 23-11 in shots on goal, the Stars surrendered two goals in a 2:07 span and could not recover.
First, for the second time in the game, an apparent Pittsburgh power play goal was waved off. This time, with Pittsburgh on another power play, Evgeni Malkin’s wrist shot from the right sideboards deflected off Trevor Daley’s skate in the crease and in just as Chris Kunitz barreled through the blue paint, interfering with Lehtonen, so the goal was nullified at 6:56.
Like the first time, though, the Penguins quickly answered with a valid goal, needing just 23 seconds to make it 2-1 when Neal scored his 11th goal of the season. After receiving a pass from Malkin, Neal controlled the puck low in the left face-off circle and then drew Stephane Robidas and Lehtonen out of the crease before funneling the puck across the crease for Kunitz at the right post, but the puck ricocheted off Fistric’s stick and in.
“I thought we got running around, and obviously when you got skilled guys like Malkin out there, he can get you running around quickly,” Gulutzan said of the play. “(Neal) made a great pass and either Fisty gets his stick in there or Kunitz was going to put it in, so we had to do a better job on the initial part of that play.”
Pittsburgh struck again 2:07 later when Cooke scored on a rare penalty shot at 9:28. Cooke drew the penalty shot when he blew past Sheldon Souray at the Penguins’ blue line and sped into the Dallas zone on a breakaway. Daley caught up to him and dove at the puck, but instead knocked Cooke down, although he still managed a shot on goal before he plowed into Lehtonen, to incur the penalty shot.
“I don’t know the rule book, but I think if you get a shot away, and he did get a pretty good chance on our goal, I don’t know if it’s a penalty shot,” said Gulutzan of the call. “But if the ref saw that he didn’t get a shot, then I guess it should be. He got a shot away, they were right beside each other, but it’s the ref’s discretion.”
On the shot, Cooke came into the slot and made a wide, sweeping deke, going forehand to backhand to forehand before chipping it past Lehtonen’s outstretched pads and in.
Dallas had a big opportunity at 9:56 when Radek Dvorak stripped Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin of the puck in the high slot, getting the puck to Vernon Fiddler all alone in front, but Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stopped Fiddler’s point-blank wrist shot.
On another power play with 6:25 remaining in regulation, the Penguins nearly got another one, but Lehtonen came up with a huge shoulder save on Kunitz’s slap shot from the left circle.
Gulutzan pulled Lehtonen for an extra attacker with 1:20 on the clock, but Dallas was unable to mount much of a late push, although they did deny Neal the chance at a hat trick as he went for the open net.
“Tonight’s just one of those games, you just wish you could have played better,” said Nystrom. “We know we’re better than that and I’d like to face that team on a night when we have the jump and are playing well.”
The Penguins, back at it after six days off, showed no signs of rust as they controlled most of the early going, building up an 11-2 edge in shots on goal through the first 13-plus minutes of the opening period.
Dallas’ first prime opportunity came on their third shot at 13:45 when Mike Ribeiro’s nifty pass from behind the Pittsburgh net found Adam Burish alone in front, but Fleury made a nice pad save before Burish’s point-blank rebound chance went wide.
The Stars’ next shot made it 1-0 as Nystrom continued his hot streak by scoring his fifth goal in the last six games at 16:08. After Dvorak outraced Martin to a loose puck in the left corner, he fed a slick pass in front for the charging Nystrom, who chipped it up over Fleury’s glove.
“I think we came out a little flat in the first period,” said Nystrom. “We went a couple of days without a game and they were all jacked up in their own building, so we started off a little flat, but we started skated and making better passes.”
So despite getting outshot 13-5, the Stars emerged from the first period fortunate to be leading 1-0.
After killing off the remaining time on a Pittsburgh power play, the Stars nearly got one of their own 49 seconds into the period, as a nice play by Jamie Benn led to a close-in chance by Loui Eriksson, but Fleury made the save.
It appeared that the Penguins tied it on a power play with 2:28 left in the second, but it was waved off by the officials on the ice, prompting a video review. With Benn in the penalty box for a very questionable tripping call, Malkin blasted a one-timer from the right face-off circle that Kunitz deflected out of mid-air past Lehtonen just under the crossbar. It was nullified by the referee because they determined Kunitz’s stick was above the crossbar and even though replays were inconclusive, the video review upheld the original call.
Pittsburgh responded just 24 seconds later, though, as Neal tied it with the power play still in effect. Neal drilled a slap shot from the left circle that squeezed through Lehtonen and just trickled over the goal line before Nicklas Grossman swept it out a moment too late.
The Stars must re-group quickly, as they conclude their four-game road trip, on which they are now 2-1-0, with a short jaunt north to Detroit to face the Red Wings Saturday night (6 pm start, TXA-21) for the first time this season. After winning their first five games, the Wings have stumbled to a 2-5-1 mark since and sat 11th heading into Friday’s games.
“We had a great game against Washington and we have another test tomorrow night against a Detroit team that’s always good,” said Nystrom, who will be returning to a familiar area as he spent four years at the University of Michigan. “We have an opportunity to have a really good road trip with a win tomorrow and that would be great going home with three wins on this trip against some very good teams.”
“Tonight, I thought we got outworked and I don’t want to see that happen again tomorrow night,” Gulutzan said. “Going into Detroit, we want to make sure we’re ready and we’re playing our game. The results are going to take care of themselves, but we can’t get outworked two nights in a row. For us, coming into Washington, Pittsburgh and Detroit, it was a measuring stick for us and we still have a ways to go, but we’re not that far off.”
- Nystrom’s four-game goal-scoring streak is a career-high and his four goals over that span matches his offensive output from all of last season with Minnesota over 82 games.
- Dvorak’s assist gives him five assists in the last six games after recording just one assist in the previous nine contests.
- Fiddler, who had his four-game scoring streak snapped last game in Washington, started a new one by earning an assist on Nystrom’s goal, leaving him with six points (two goals, four assists) in the last six games.
- Several Stars scoring streaks came to an end, including Benn’s six-game streak (three goals, eight assists), Loui Eriksson’s five-gamer (three goals, six assists), Souray’s four-gamer (two goals, five assists), and Michael Ryder’s three-game streak (three goals, four assists).
- Eriksson, Souray and Ribeiro each fired four shots on goal to lead Dallas.
- The Stars were outhit 23-12, with Ribeiro leading the squad with three hits.
- Gritty forward Steve Ott missed his fourth straight game with a lower body injury, while defenseman Adam Pardy and forward Jake Dowell sat out as healthy scratches.
- Overall, Pittsburgh was 2-for-5 on the power play, leaving the Dallas penalty kill unit just 16-for-23 over the last four outings. “We knew we had to stay away from the penalty kill tonight, but every time we turned around, we were in the box,” said Gulutzan. “So if you’re going against a 22-23 percent power play, our goal was to come in here and keep our penalties to three or four, but obviously, we didn’t.”
- Facing the NHL’s best PK unit, the Stars’ power play was 0-for-2, after connecting at a 5-for-14 clip (not including two more just as advantages expired) over the previous three contests.
- Dallas is now 3-1-0 against Eastern foes this year after registering an 11-5-2 mark against the East last season.
1 - 0 DAL