DALLAS – Being behind after two periods against the Phoenix Coyotes hasn’t been healthy for teams around the NHL this season. The Stars found out firsthand why.
The Coyotes improved to 21-1 when ahead at the second intermission break with a suffocating defensive style that helped them defeat the Stars 4-1 on Tuesday night at American Airlines Center.
The Stars (27-23-2) had a glimmer of hope when they were able to tie things up on Michael Ryder’s goal early in the second period, but Phoenix took a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes, and true to past form, put the clamps on in the third to win for just the first time in its last seven games on the road.
With the win, the Coyotes leapfrogged the Stars and into ninth place in the Western Conference. The Stars remain with 56 points, two behind the Minnesota Wild, who hold the eighth and final playoff slot in the West.
“Awful. Atrocious,” Sheldon Souray said. “We’ve gotten by with a really good goaltender the last three or four games, and it’s just not good enough. We can talk about it and try to figure it out, but as a whole we’ve been letting each other down these last three or four games, especially with how important this stretch of games is, and what it means.”
The Coyotes played their typical tight-checking game against a Stars team that had won three of their last four to stay in the pack in the tightly-contested playoff race. Though the shot clock said both teams had taken about the same attempts, the reality was the Coyotes were able to pretty much contain Dallas’ scoring chances all game. Phoenix rarely allowed a Dallas penetration into high-quality areas of the ice in the offensive zone, and its dump-and-chase game in the opposite end was played out to near perfection.
With the game tied in the second, the Stars had a golden opportunity to go ahead when they were handed a four-minute power play after Mikkel Boedker high-sticked Philip Larsen. But Coyotes goalie Mike Smith foiled the man advantage with some solid saves, and pressed the repeat button midway through the third when the Stars went on another power play when they were down 3-1.
“We got some chances on the power play, and you want to score and capitalize,” Souray said about the second period power play. “We talked about it all year, that your power play can win you some games and can lose you some games. There was a lot of hockey to be played after that, and we just didn’t rise to the occasion.”
Making matters more disappointing for the Stars was the fact that Phoenix came in having been outscored by a 20-9 margin while going 0-3-3 in their last six games on the road.
“We weren’t very good again, even with a really good goalie performance,” coach Glen Gulutzan said. “We got outworked by a team that played last night. When you get outplayed and outworked and your goaltender stands on his head to keep it close, I’ve got a big problem.”
Kari Lehtonen made 20 saves, and kept things manageable for the Stars as they tried to get things rolling. But he ultimately had his three-game winning streak snapped, and fell to 4-2-3 lifetime against the Coyotes.
Radim Vrbata had a goal and assist, and Keith Yandle, Raffi Torres, and Derek Morris scored for the Coyotes (25-21-8), who won their third straight. Smith finished with 28 saves to improve to 4-0-3 against his former team.
“It’s frustrating and disappointing because we know what’s riding on the line,” Souray said. “We’re fighting with that team for a playoff spot, and we weren’t good enough.”
The Coyotes extended their lead to 3-1 on Torres’ ninth of the season six minutes into the third when he accepted a cross-ice pass from Boedker before snapping a shot past Lehtonen from the left circle.
Morris then capped the scoring by upping the lead to 4-1 with 3:51 left in regulation, scoring his first goal of the season with a slap shot from the high slot.
Down by a goal after the first 20 minutes, Ryder collected the equalizer with his team-leading 19th of the season just 2:34 into the second period. Skating into the right circle, he took a quick shot that squirted past Smith to make it 1-1.
“It’s been a couple of games since I found the back of the net, but you have to stay positive and keep shooting,” said Ryder, who scored for just the second time in his last 14 games. “It’s all about trying to get pucks to the net and using my shot to my advantage. That’s what I like to do, shoot the puck.”
Just seconds after Ryder scored, Lehtonen robbed Ray Whitney on a 2-on-1 break. Down the left wing, Oliver Ekman-Larsson fed Whitney in the slot, and Whitney appeared to have a gaping net in front of him. But Lehtonen dove to his left to snag away the attempt.
The Coyotes, though, regained their lead when Vrbata completed a nifty give-and-go with Rostislav Klesla with 5:30 left in the second. In the high slot, Vrbata fed Klesla in the left circle before breaking toward the net and ultimately tapping in Klesla’s return pass. Vrbata’s team-leading 25th of the season made it 2-1.
The Coyotes struck first when Yandle notched his seventh of the season 4:43 into the opening frame to make it 1-0. From the point, his shot went through a maze of bodies in front before ricocheting in off of a leg.
“We’re the ones that put ourselves in this position,” Stephane Robidas said. “We lost a lot of one-on-one battles, and when you do that you end up on the wrong side, and that’s exactly what happened. It all comes back to the work ethic. If you want to win, you have to be willing to work and win those one-on-one battles. There’s no excuse, it’s a mindset.”
The Stars embark on a short two-game road trip that will start on Thursday in Columbus against the Blue Jackets (6 p.m., FSSW) before concluding Friday at Buffalo.
“We have to get back to working hard and winning our battles,” Souray said. “We have to play much harder individually and collectively.”