DALLAS – Wow. The 16,812 fans at the American Airlines Center Thursday night certainly got their money’s worth.
In an intense battle with a distinct playoff atmosphere, Tomas Vincour emerged as the Dallas Stars’ latest hero, scoring the game-tying goal with just 1:15 remaining in regulation and then notching the only goal in the shootout to boost the Stars to a thrilling 4-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks.
Also crucial to the triumph was goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who was sensational in making a season-high 45 saves, plus another four in the shootout.
It was another huge victory for the on-fire Stars, who returned home after completing a highly-impressive three-game sweep on their Western Canada road trip. They are now 8-0-1 in their last nine games, boosting them to 79 points on the season and further entrenching them in the Pacific Division lead, three points ahead of Phoenix, who has 76 points and currently sit seventh in the Western Conference standings.
“I thought we played real gutsy, we played hard,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “It’s not easy coming back after a road swing and getting that type of performance. Kari Lehtonen certainly gave us an opportunity to stay in this game long enough to get two points.”
“It feels great, that’s a huge two points for us,” said Vincour, who scored his second goal in the last four games after recording just one assist in his previous 10 outings. “It doesn’t matter who scores the goal, now is the time to get two points every night and every goal is huge for us. I’m happy I could score for us, but it doesn’t matter who scores.”
San Jose, now just 2-7-3 in their last 12 contests, gained one point to move to 75, giving them a one-point edge over Los Angeles and Colorado for the eighth and final playoff spot.
This was actually the Stars’ first win this year over the Sharks, who had defeated Dallas in each of their first three meetings this season by a combined score of 14-5. The two clubs face each other two more times in the final 14 games.
“It gives us a little bit of a boost,” Gulutzan said of finally beating the Sharks. “There’s no question they’ve had our number, but for coming back from the road, we played a pretty good game. Remember, they’re a little bit of a wounded bear right now, so it’s not an easy game against them, with them having confidence against us for one, and then being a little grizzly with the way they’ve played lately. They’re a great hockey club. I think for us, we got a little confidence from it and we’ve got two important meetings with these guys.”
“We’ve had our struggles with them this year, we knew that coming in, and we wanted to play our game, play the right way and play the way we’ve been playing lately,” added center Jamie Benn, whose goal at 6:20 of the third period lifted Dallas into a 2-2 tie. “That’s what we did tonight. We got down, but that happens in games and we battled back and got two big points against a division rival.”
After Joe Pavelski gave San Jose a 3-2 lead with just 3:32 remaining in the third period, the Stars kept battling and tied it in dramatic fashion when it took a video review to determine that Vincour did indeed score just as Lehtonen was leaving the ice for an extra attacker, with just 1:15 left.
Then, after the first four shooters from each team failed to connect in the shootout, Vincour sped into the Sharks’ zone, made a quick move to his backhand and lifted the puck past the blocker of San Jose netminder Antti Niemi.
For a guy who had just scored his fifth career goal in his 60th NHL game, it was not such a surprise he was chosen to take a turn in the shootout.
“If I’m honest, no,” admitted Vincour, who took his second shootout attempt of the year. “He put me out there against Buffalo, too, when we played there on the road and last year I scored a few goals in the shootout (at AHL Texas), so I wasn’t surprised. I just went on the ice and knew that I was going to go backhand.”
“Vinny’s good in those shootouts, we’ve had him in Austin and he was good there,” said Gulutzan, who coached Vincour with the Stars’ AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, last season. “He did it for us tonight and that goal at the end (of regulation) was huge. But I thought that Vinny was teetering throughout the game, I thought he was heavy on pucks, he was quick on pucks, I tried to get him a little more ice towards the end there and he got rewarded, that’s for sure.”
Then Lehtonen made a pad save on Logan Couture’s wrist shot to clinch the big win for Dallas. It was the eighth straight shooter Lehtonen has stopped in the shootout, following a rough outing Feb. 29 against Pittsburgh, when he surrendered three goals on four shots.
“I’m just trying to be a little more relaxed,” Lehtonen said of his demeanor in the Stars’ last two shootouts, including a 3-2 win in Calgary Sunday. “I was a little tense, trying to think too much what they’re guy is going to do and the last two I was just trying to be patient and wait for their move, and believe that I’m fast enough to move after they make the initial move, something like that. You just wish it would only go three rounds at that point, but we’ll take it and go from there.”
“That guy is unbelievable,” Benn said of Lehtonen. “We don’t mean to give him so many shots, but I think he likes it, he likes stopping them all. He stepped up big in the shootout and got us four big saves.”
In addition to Vincour and Benn, who also added an assist, Michael Ryder also scored for Dallas, while defenseman Stephane Robidas chipped in with two assists.
Overall, it was just a gritty, character win for a team that was missing top-six forward Steve Ott and then lost two defensemen, Sheldon Souray and Mark Fistric, for the third period and overtime.
“Those guys are playing for each other, showing a lot of resiliency and character,” said Gulutzan. “The bench was real good tonight, as far as leadership from every guy there. It says a lot for our group, we were down to four D in the third.”
“A game’s 60 minutes and we showed it tonight, we battled to the end,” said Vincour. “We’re having fun, it’s huge, we’re playing for each other and that’s the best feeling you can have when you’re playing hockey.”
The Stars carried a 1-0 lead into the very late stages of the second period before a pair of miscues within a span of 27 seconds of play.
The Sharks tied it up just before the buzzer sounded to end the second period with a kick to the groin when Torrey Mitchell maneuvered his way around Alex Goligoski 1-on-1, turning the Stars defender inside out. As he approached the top of the crease, Lehtonen went for the pokecheck and missed, and Mitchell popped it over Lehtonen’s pad with 1.6 seconds on the clock.
The Sharks came out in the final period buzzing with momentum and administered another punch to the gut when Patrick Marleau connected for his 27th of the year just 25 seconds into the third. After cycling the puck with Joe Thornton in the right corner, Marleau lost the puck in the circle, but with a chance to clear it, Fistric inadvertently put the puck right back on Marleau’s stick. Then, after curling into the slot, Marleau unleashed a deceptive wrist shot that found its way past a screened Lehtonen, bounced off the right post and fell just over the goal line.
The Stars ramped up their intensity again after that and began to apply more pressure in the San Jose zone, with Goligoski drilling a slap shot from the left point at 2:35 that whizzed though a screen in front, past Niemi, but plonked off the right goalpost.
Lehtonen came up with a big save on Andrew Desjardins at 4:41, when a nifty pass from Brent Burns out of the left circle found him in the slot for a one-timer.
Benn then took matters into his own hands with his 20th goal of the season at 6:42 to tie it 2-2. After picking up the puck deep in his own zone, Benn led the Stars up the ice, dishing it off to Adam Burish just inside the San Jose blue line, then receiving it back in the slot. He briefly lost it but got it right back in the slot from Ryan Garbutt before rifling a quick wrist shot through the sliding Dan Boyle and beating Niemi between the pads.
“I just tried to come with speed and just kept moving the puck forward,” Benn said. “I got a couple of lucky bounces and I don’t think the goalie was expecting a quick shot there.”
Lehtonen kept the game tied with a nice blocker save at 11:54 off Tommy Wingels’ wrist shot from the right circle.
The Stars nearly took the lead with several good chances by the third line with about 4:40 remaining in regulation, when Vernon Fiddler and Radek Dvorak each had point-blank shots turned aside by nice Niemi saves.
Pavelski lifted the Sharks into a 3-2 lead with 3:32 left with his 24th goal. Lehtonen stopped Boyle’s wrist shot from the right circle, but the rebound bounced out front, where Pavelski eluded Trevor Daley just enough to get his stick on the puck and slither it through Lehtonen and over the line.
The Stars tied it just as Lehtonen was being pulled for an extra attacker on Vincour’s fourth goal of the season with just 1:15 to go. Robidas’ slap shot from the point hit off Vincour’s leg at the left side of the crease and bounced under the falling Niemi just as Vincour swiped at it again, nudging it just barely over the goal line before Niemi pulled it out with his glove. Initially, the officials on the ice ruled it no goal, but following an official video review, it was deemed a goal.
“Robi on the blue line shot it, it just hit my pants a little bit and a little luck that I kind of tipped it and it went in, so it was good,” Vincour said of the play. “I saw it was behind the line, but nobody celebrated and I didn’t want to feel like I was alone there.”
The Stars had a couple of opportunities to end it during the five-minute 4-on-4 overtime period, but could not finish it. Mike Ribeiro took off on a breakaway just 43 second in, but was caught from behind by Boyle, who knocked the puck off Ribeiro’s stick just as he was about to shoot.
Niemi then came up with a big save on Loui Eriksson’s point-blank wrist shot from the high slot at 1:21.
A holding penalty on Ryder at 2:37 put the Sharks on a dangerous 4-on-3 power play, but the Stars were able to kill it off, thanks primarily to Lehtonen’s big elbow save on Pavelski’s uncontested backhander in front at 3:35.
Ryder nearly ended it right after he exited the penalty box, chasing down a loose puck in the right circle, then cutting in front for a backhander that forced Niemi to make a big pad save with just 12 seconds left in OT.
That set the stage for the shootout and the exciting finish.
“It was an up-and-down game,” Benn said. “Kari once again kept us in early, played a great game, and I think we just stuck with it for a full 60 in this game. We came back twice and finished it off in the shootout.”
The Stars had the first legitimate scoring chance 8:56 into the opening period, when a 3-on-2 rush into the San Jose zone resulted in Eriksson rifling a scorching wrist shot from the slot that beat Niemi but pinged off the outside of the left goalpost.
San Jose had a prime opportunity at 12:52 during a power play (after Garbutt was banished for roughing), but Lehtonen came up with a huge save on Joe Thornton’s one-timer from the right face-off circle.
The Sharks continued to press during the man-advantage, when Couture swept up out from behind the net attempting to stuff it inside the right post at 13:35, but Lehtonen closed off the bottom of the net with his pad.
In the end, San Jose outshot Dallas 16-8 in the period, but the two clubs entered the first intermission scoreless.
The Stars nearly got one 3:15 into the second period when Daley’s slap shot from the point sailed just wide of the left post and the puck rebounded off the end boards right to Dowell at the side of the crease. Dowell chipped a wrist shot over Niemi but it rolled right through the crease and just wide of the far post.
San Jose struck some iron of their own at 5:02 when Dominic Moore, a player they picked up from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline, fired a wrist shot off the rush from the left circle that clanked off the left goalpost.
Ryder snapped a scoreless tie at 12:16 of the second period with a beautiful goal that came just seconds after Lehtonen came up with a huge save.
First, a nice cross-ice pass from Couture found Ryane Clowe charging down the slot for a one-timer that Lehtonen slid across the crease to make a pad save on, and the Stars raced back the other way on the counter-attack. Dowell fed a pass up to Ryder, who managed to split the Sharks’ defense pairing of Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic to go in alone on Niemi, whom he beat with a quick wrist shot for his team-leading 29th goal.
“I thought he played real hard tonight,” Gulutzan said of Ryder. “He dug in and I thought he played real hard. He seems to have an extra gear when he gets a step on a guy, especially to get that goal, he certainly battled his way through.”
Lehtonen made a strong blocker save on Pavelski’s wrister from the high slot at 13:42 to keep the Stars ahead.
Dallas remains at home through the weekend as another desperate Western Conference club visits, as the Anaheim Ducks come to town (7 pm start, TXA-21). The Ducks have cooled off a bit of late, sitting 12th with 68 points after losing 3-1 to the Blues Thursday.
- Ryder extended his scoring streak to eight games, a stretch in which he’s totaled six goals and nine points. He also fired a season-high nine shots on goal, which is actually the most by any Stars player this year. Going third in the shootout, Ryder fired a wrist shot just wide of the left post, leaving him 1-for-7 this season in the tie-breaker competition.
- Benn scored for the second straight game and for the third time in five games since returning from a lacerated leg. He also has two assists in that span. He missed on his shootout attempt, leaving him 4-for-7 this season.
- Robidas now has four points (one goal, three assists) in the last two games, after registering just one assist in the previous 13 contests.
- Daley’s assist leaves him with seven assists in his last nine outings, following a stretch in which he’d recorded just one assist in the previous 19 games.
- Dowell was activated off Injured Reserve after missing the previous seven games with an upper body injury and played a strong game, earning an assist.
- Ribeiro and Eriksson missed their shootout chances as well, before Vincour got the chance to end it in the fifth round.
- Ott exited the pre-game warm-ups with back spasms and did not play. “Otter just had a few little back spasms there,” Gulutzan said, “so he’ll be good to go once we can take care of that properly.”
- Souray left the contest during the second period with a lower body injury. “He’ll be day-to-day, so we’ll see where that goes tomorrow,” Gulutzan said.
- Fistric headed to the locker room early in the third period, but is expected back shortly, according to Gulutzan. “Fisty should be available for us,” he said. “Fisty hurt his hand and had some freezing in there, which froze up his hand, so he couldn’t go in the third. But x-rays were negative and he should be okay to go here.”
- Dallas killed off all three San Jose power plays, including that crucial one in overtime, leaving them a stellar 26-for-27 over their last nine games and 35-for-37 over the last 12.