DALLAS – Two early goals proved to be too much to overcome for the Dallas Stars, and now a team that surged to the top of the Pacific Division with some inspired play over the last three weeks must regroup after a couple of stinging losses.
The Stars found themselves down by a pair just 1:42 into the game, and they were ultimately unable to dig themselves out of that hole in their 4-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night before a sellout crowd at American Airlines Center.
The defeat comes on the heels of Wednesday’s loss at Winnipeg, which snapped Dallas’ six-game winning streak that pushed them to the division lead. Still, Dallas holds a two-point edge on Phoenix atop the Pacific, and is three in front of San Jose -- but the Sharks have two games in hand.
The Stars and Coyotes both have 10 games remaining.
“We’re going to be in a big grind here for the next 10 games, and they’re going to dictate our fate,” captain Brenden Morrow said. “We have to recharge the batteries and be ready for that last, hard push.”
The Stars were undone when Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp scored in the opening minutes of the first period, then Sharp and Marian Hossa scored consecutive goals in the first 1:45 of the third period to stake Chicago to an insurmountable lead. The Blackhawks never looked back from there in winning for the third time in their last four outings.
Kari Lehtonen finished with 27 saves for the Stars (39-28-5), who have still compiled a 10-2-1 mark over their last 13 contests. Jamie Benn spoiled Chicago goalie Corey Crawford’s shutout bit with a goal with 5:50 left in the third.
“We put ourselves in a hole there, and you never want to do that against a good team like Chicago,” Benn said. “We did a better job in the second, but had another bad start in the third that crushed us. We shied away from our game a bit. We need to play the simple game, get pucks deep, and win the blue lines. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot with bad starts.”
Crawford made 21 saves for the Blackhawks (39-25-8), who are sixth in the Western Conference with 86 points.
“It wasn’t our best game, but for 56 minutes we were ok playing against a good hockey club,” coach Glen Gulutzan said. “But two minutes in the first and two minutes in the third put us to bed. We gotta generate more flurries and more pucks to the net. You need guys to suck it up this time of year. I was a little worried about this stretch. We have to focus now on our last 10 games.”
After falling behind after 20 minutes and being outshot by a 12-5 margin, the Stars began to take back some control in the second period, and held the territorial edge for most of the frame. But Crawford was able to keep Dallas from the scoresheet with steady saves, including a nice effort on Loui Eriksson’s attempt from in tight.
The Stars wound up outshooting Chicago 11-6 in the second 20 minutes, but Crawford had all the answers. Hossa and Sharp’s third-period goals quickly squashed any Stars’ comeback dreams.
“We were the more physical team, and we were creating, but (Crawford) made some good saves and they did a good job of getting in lanes and taking some shots away from us,” Morrow said. “They played a pretty good game, and other than the couple of turnovers, we did.”
Benn finally broke through for Dallas when he flicked a shot past Crawford from just outside the crease after accepting a slick feed from Steve Ott. It was his 22nd goal of the season.
“I don’t know if it’s mental fatigue, which is no excuse, but we’ve talked about (turnovers),” Morrow said. “Sometimes you go out there and you get brain dead with the puck. You try to get it all back in one shift instead of what we had success with lately, which was grinding and grinding and playing a 60-minute game. Giving up two quick ones like that, maybe you just try to get them back just as quick.”
The Blackhawks put things away early on in the third, with Hossa notching his 28th of the season just 33 seconds into the final frame. From near the right point, his slap shot deflected off Adam Pardy before slipping past Lehtonen.
Sharp scored his second of the game to make it 4-0 a mere 72 seconds after Hossa’s goal. On a mini 2-on-1, he ripped in a shot from the slot.
“They’re skilled, they skate well, and they move the puck well,” Benn said. “You can’t give skill players like that that much time.”
Chicago struck first just 10 seconds into the game when Bolland scored his 18th of the season. After Andrew Shaw chipped the puck to Bolland in the high slot, the Blackhawks center ripped a snap shot into the top-left corner.
Sharp then made it 2-0 just 1:42 into the game with his 27th of the year. Sharp picked up the puck in the left corner and curled around the outside of the left circle before unleashing a shot from near the faceoff dot that eluded Lehtonen.
Both quick-strike tallies came with Lehtonen partially screened.
The Stars will now have three days off before resuming their four-game homestand on Tuesday night when they host Phoenix in a key game at American Airlines Center (7 p.m., NBC Sports Network). By then, the Sharks will have played their two games in hand, while the Stars will have a game in hand on Phoenix when they square off against each other.
“Rest up, and refocus,” Benn said about the little break. “We have a big one Tuesday. It’s going to be huge for our team.”