Glendale, Arizona – It’s amazing how quickly things change in the NHL.
After a devastating five-game losing streak, the Dallas Stars looked like they had turned things around with an encouraging 2-0-1 mark over their Thanksgiving week homestand, including a hard-fought 4-3 shootout loss at home to Toronto Friday night.
Following a late-night flight to Arizona to battle their Pacific Division rival Phoenix Coyotes, the Stars looked like they might be in for a tough night because of it being the second of back-to-back contests, but nothing could have prepared them for what occurred Saturday night.
The fact that they were shut out 3-0 by the Coyotes and former Dallas goaltender Mike Smith, who made 26 saves for his 13th career whitewash, at the Jobing.com Arena was almost beside the point.
Far more crushing was the loss of three key contributors to injuries, most notably workhorse starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who sustained a lower body injury just 5:31 into the game and did not return.
Defenseman Trevor Daley and center Vernon Fiddler also left with ailments over the course of the game, doubling the population of the Stars’ training room, although the severity of their injuries were not yet known.
“We’re still evaluating, but both Dales and Kari are unlikely for Monday for sure,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said, referring to the club’s next game in Colorado. “We don’t know to what degree yet, and Fiddler will be day-to-day.”
Already missing top defenseman Alex Goligoski (broken thumb) and heart-and-soul grinder Adam Burish (broken hand), the Stars were also without captain Brenden Morrow for the third straight contest (upper body injury) when Lehtonen was hurt.
After stretching out to make a blocker save on Derek Morris’ long slap shot early in the first period, Lehtonen stayed down and eventually had to be helped off the ice. What was probably most alarming was that Lehtonen clearly didn’t put any weight on his right leg as he was helped off.
“A little bit of a groin pull there, so we’ll see how it is,” Gulutzan said of Lehtonen. “It’s one of those things that you don’t know the extent of it until you see it the next day, so he got his groin there a little bit.”
Backup Andrew Raycroft stepped into the fray and delivered a strong effort, making 33 saves under difficult circumstances. And depending on how serious Lehtonen’s injury is, he may be relied upon for awhile, and that’s fine with him.
“I’ve been a starter in the league and to be honest, feel more comfortable with it most of the time. You can get into a bit of a rhythm,” said Raycroft, who fell to 0-5-0 on the season. “I don’t know quite how it will go, but it looks like I’ll get a couple of games in a row at least, which will be nice to feel a rhythm and just get the pace of play down and get better reads, so I’m looking forward to that.”
“He played real well tonight. It’s too bad - it’s tough to win a game if you don’t score a goal,” said defenseman Stephane Robidas of Raycroft. “As well as he’s played for us this year, it’s unfortunate with Andrew tonight, but he’s a professional and he’ll be ready for next game and he’s always been ready every time he’s been asked to go in the net. He’s been a number one before in this league and he’s still a really good goalie and we’re fully confident in him.”
Dallas had lost all four previous second legs of back-to-back sets so far this year, with Raycroft in net for each of them, so this time Gulutzan opted to go back to Lehtonen for the start.
Raycroft, who had already been announced as the starter for Dallas’ next game in Colorado on Monday, will surely be in the crease again as Lehtonen’s condition is evaluated.
“Razor’s been the guy before and that’s why we got him, to handle situations where we needed two goalies,” said Gulutzan. “He’s going to be the guy here Monday for sure and if he has to carry the ball for a week, then I have no problem with that, and I don’t think he does either.”
Daley was lost late in the first period to an upper body injury and didn’t return, forcing Dallas to juggle five blueliners the rest of the night. It became an epidemic when Fiddler left due to a lower body injury after getting hit by a Sheldon Souray slap shot late in the second period.
“Dales, we’re not quite sure, we think it was his back, he tweaked his back, so we don’t know the extent of that and Fiddler’s is the groin as well, so until tomorrow, we won’t know,” Gulutzan added.
Still, the game was in reach most of the night for the Stars, who were shut out for the third time in their last six games, and the fourth time this season. The defeat leaves them with a 13-9-1 record overall and drops them to 5-6-0 on the road this year. They’re now tied with Phoenix for fifth in the Western Conference standings.
“I don’t think we responded great,” Gulutzan said, regarding the adversity Dallas faced. “I’m not taking anything away from Phoenix, I thought they outplayed us, no question. But I thought there was a little window of opportunity there had we had some kind of jump, that we could have pushed this game as a good road game and kept it 1-0 or 0-0 for awhile.”
“You got to give them credit, they played well,” Robidas said. “They’re a team that they usually don’t beat themselves, they do the little things, play a little bit how we want to play - they put pucks deep on the forecheck, they cycle, they get their shots through and they don’t give up too many odd-man rushes. That’s how you have to play if you want to win in this league.”
The Stars actually had the first prime scoring opportunity of the contest, almost capitalizing on a blatant giveaway from Smith just 2:34 into the opening period. Tom Wandell intercepted Smith’s clearing attempt just inside the Phoenix blue line and had a clear path to the net, but his wrist shot from the slot sailed over the crossbar.
Dallas had its collective psyche rattled a little about three minutes later when Lehtonen went down stopping Morris’ shot that didn’t even count because there was an offsides call whistled on the play.
Raycroft came in and did a solid job, making several outstanding saves, particularly his shoulder save on Daymond Langkow’s point-blank wrister at 11:36 and then again on Langkow’s consecutive rebound chances in front.
Phoenix then got on the scoreboard with a questionable goal at 15:05 when Raycroft was bowled over at the top of the crease by Coyote captain Shane Doan just as Keith Yandle’s slap shot from the point arrived. The puck trickled behind Raycroft towards the goal line and Mikkel Boedker darted in to nudge it over the line to make it 1-0.
That goal seemed to tip the scales in the Coyotes’ favor, dealing with Lehtonen’s injury and then a goal that probably should have been waved off being allowed to stand.
“We didn’t get a call early and after that, we didn’t respond with any sort of like or enthusiasm, we just let them take it to us the whole way,” Gulutzan said. “And I felt there was some kind of opportunity coming into this game, that maybe coming off their loss last night (a 5-0 defeat at home to Vancouver), that one goal could have got in their kitchen a little bit, but we never pushed towards any of those things and that’s disappointing.”
Jamie Benn had a close-in chance for the Stars with 3:22 left in the period, but his high wrist shot from a sharp angle to the left of the crease was batted aside by Smith.
Outshot 16-7 and trailing 1-0 entering the second period, the Stars were back on their heels again early, needing Raycroft to make a strong save on Doan’s blast from the point at 2:44, and then an even better stop on Boedker’s point-blank rebound chance.
Just about 22 seconds later, Raycroft dove across the crease to make a spectacular stop on Rostislav Klesla’s one-timer from the right circle after a cross-ice pass from Langkow.
The Coyotes then pushed their lead to 2-0 at 6:02 on Ray Whitney’s seventh goal of the season. As Phoenix entered the Dallas zone on the rush, Radim Vrbata slid a pass from the top of the left circle down to Whitney low in the left circle, and Whitney drilled a one-timer from a somewhat sharp angle past Raycroft on the short side.
As the period wore on, the Stars began to find their legs a bit and finally had some sustained pressure in the Phoenix zone, with Smith making a nice save on Philip Larsen’s wrister from the right point at 10:56.
Dallas had a golden opportunity at 11:17 when a Mike Ribeiro pass sprung Steve Ott in on a breakaway, but Smith stopped his point-blank wrist shot.
Down 2-0 heading into the final period, the Stars had a great chance early to swing momentum their way when Benn carried the puck into the Phoenix zone on a 2-on-1 rush just 28 seconds in. Benn’s pass across the zone found Michael Ryder charging into the slot, but Ryder shanked the one-timer attempt wide.
The Coyotes made it 3-0 on Taylor Pyatt’s goal at 10:28. After Nicklas Grossman lost the puck behind the Dallas net, Lauri Korpikoski fed it out front to Langkow for a point-blank one-timer that Raycroft stopped, but the loose rebound went right to Pyatt, who tucked it inside the right post.
Dallas had its best chance of the night less than two minutes later when Benn fired a scorching wrist shot from the slot that beat Smith but clanked off the crossbar and the post before bouncing into the right corner.
Benn nearly snapped the shutout again 39 seconds later when he stripped David Schlemko of the puck behind the Coyotes net and tried to step out front with it, but was stymied by Smith just as he was scrambling back into the crease.
“We just didn’t really have it tonight and the injuries didn’t help,” Raycroft said. “When you go down a goalie and down to five D in the first few minutes, it’s pretty tough, especially against a team that works so hard down low. They kind of took it to us at times during the night. You just kind of have to let it go and get the next one.”
The Stars finish their brief two-game road trip with a visit to Denver on Monday to face the Avalanche (8:00 pm start, FSSW). Colorado, which scored four third period goals to defeat Edmonton 5-2 Saturday night, currently sit 12th in the West standings with a 10-12-1 record.
“Stick with the process, keep doing the little things,” said Robidas regarding what Dallas needs to do in order to overcome the injuries. “When things get harder, there’s two ways to react to it - either you fold and try to find excuses or you just take up the challenge. Everybody’s got to step up their game, it’s an opportunity for some guys to show what you can do and as a hockey player, that’s what you want. You want a chance to show what you can do. It’s up to us to do it. There’s no excuses, we got to do the little things right and we can’t beat ourselves.”
- Souray led the Stars with six shots on goal, while Benn and Wandell each added four.
- Defenseman Stephane Robidas led the Stars in ice time, logging 26:03 of ice time, his second-highest total of the season. He was followed closely by rookie blueliner Philip Larsen, who spent a career-high 25:50 on the ice. Larsen actually led the team with five hits, tied with Mark Fistric.
- Lehtonen made three saves in the brief time he was in the crease.
- Dallas is now 2-1-0 on the season against former coach Dave Tippett and the Coyotes, after winning both previous meetings in shootouts.
- The Stars only had one power play opportunity and failed to score on it, obviously, so that leaves them 0-for-16 over their last seven games with the man-advantage.