BUFFALO – The Stars have tried many different approaches to end their winless skid in the second half of back-to-back games. From getting back to basics and trying to make the game simpler, to not skating on gamedays, the Stars have run the gamut in trying to snap the spell. They nearly broke through against the Eastern Conference Buffalo Sabres by combining those options with an old reliable one.
Shaking off the effects of a cold, Kari Lehtonen made 30 saves, but the Stars ultimately fell to the Sabres in a shootout, 3-2, at First Niagara Center on Friday night.
The defeat came a day after a 4-2 victory at Columbus on Thursday, leaving the Stars still searching for that elusive first win in the second part of consecutive games (0-8-2).
Still, the Stars garnered a much-needed point (28-23-3), and moved to within a point of eighth-place Phoenix in the bunched-up Western Conference playoff race with 59 points. But up by a goal late in the third period, and in line to cash in their chips for two points, Buffalo’s Derek Roy shoveled home a rebound while Buffalo had the extra attacker on with just 38.3 seconds left in regulation to tie the game and send it to overtime.
The Sabres then captured the bonus point when Nathan Gerbe scored in the fifth round of the shootout before Ryan Miller got a glove on Michael Ryder’s attempt that would have forced another round.
“It’s always tough when you have the lead and the other team scores late,” Lehtonen said. “If we ended up tying it and then losing it, I think we’d feel a little better than this way. But it’s still a good point against a team that had a huge win a couple of nights ago, and we played last night.”
Ryder scored a power-play goal in the first period, and Tomas Vincour also scored for the Stars, who are 2-1-1 in their last four games.
“I think we played a pretty good game overall,” Ryder said. “I think we maybe sat back a little too much in the third and gave them the momentum. It was a big point for us, but it would have been nice to get two.”
Coming in, coach Glen Gulutzan had planned on using backup Richard Bachman against the Sabres because of Lehtonen’s illness. But the big Finn told Gulutzan he felt good following the Blue Jackets game, and Gulutzan quickly inserted what has become the Stars’ biggest asset against a Sabres team that came in having not lost in regulation in its past nine home games.
After playing solid for two periods, Lehtonen found himself under siege in the third period and overtime when the Sabres outshot the Stars by a 16-4 margin.
“He’s been a big part for us all year,” Ryder said. “He’s an agile goalie and one of the reasons why we’re in the playoff hunt. He makes the big saves when we need them.”
Up by a goal after the first two periods, the Stars pushed their lead to 2-0 with one of the most fundamentally sound goals of their season. After the puck was dumped into the Sabres zone, Steve Ott took out Buffalo defenseman Christian Ehrhoff in the left corner, and Jamie Benn quickly swooped in to retrieve the free puck. Benn sent a feed to Vincour in the slot, and the second-year pro notched his second goal of the season 4:17 into the third.
But Thomas Vanek cut the lead to 2-1 with a power-play goal less than a minute later when he deflected Jason Pominville’s shot from the top of the right circle.
In overtime, Lehtonen forced the shootout with a spectacular save on Vanek with under 5 seconds to go. After Benn lost the puck along the right boards, Ehrhoff streaked in on Lehtonen before sliding a pass to his left to Vanek. With Lehtonen sliding to his right, he was still able to somehow kick-up his right leg to deny Vanek’s chance that was labeled.
“There wasn’t too much time left, so I tried to be aggressive and tried to pokecheck the first guy and he made a nice pass,” Lehtonen said. “I just laid my pad down and hoped that he wasn’t going to be able to lift it over it. He kind of fanned on it, but it felt good and it was nice to help keep our hopes alive for the two points.”
Ryder staked the Stars out to a 1-0 lead with his team-leading 20th of the season on the power play with 2:07 left in the first period. From the left point, Alex Goligoski let go a shot that Ryder was able to deflect over Miller’s left shoulder while standing in front.
The goal snapped Miller’s shutout string at 125 minutes, 36 seconds.
“We played a good game and didn’t give them much,” Gulutzan said. “I thought we did a pretty good job of managing our game until the last minute when they got a bounce. We limited them with chances, and we did what we wanted to do defensively. It came down to the last minute, and they had to pull their goalie. Those things happen.”
The Stars return home to play the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday at American Airlines Center (5 p.m., FSSW). The Kings have lost three of their last four after a 3-1 defeat at Florida on Thursday.