EDMONTON – The numbers were on Kari Lehtonen’s side coming into Wednesday’s game against Edmonton, and his saves helped prove them right once again.
After an uncharacteristic outing in which he surrendered five goals in Monday’s loss to the Calgary Flames, Lehtonen rebounded and shut down the Oilers to help lift the Stars to a crucial 3-1 win at Rexall Place.
The victory pushed Dallas’ point total to 89 with five games to go, and put them atop the Pacific Division one point ahead of the San Jose Sharks -- who lost to Anaheim on Wednesday -- and the Los Angeles Kings, who defeated Calgary. The Stars are also two points ahead of ninth-place Phoenix.
As for Lehtonen, a bounce-back showing like this wasn’t totally unexpected. After all, he had posted a 12-5-0 record with a 1.98 goals-against average in starts following games in which he allowed three or more goals this season, and against the Oilers he once again righted his ship against a team that had come in having garnered points in seven straight games.
“We’re happy to take these two points and keep going,” Lehtonen said. “You never know what’s going to happen against the Oilers. Those guys have so much skill, and they’re fun to play against.”
Lehtonen finished with 31 sparkling saves to win his 32nd game of the year. He set the tone with a wonderful stop on Nick Schultz in the first period on a 2-on-1 break, and denied Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the doorstep near the end of that opening stanza.
In the third, he robbed Jordan Eberle just two minutes in on a breakaway with the Oilers shorthanded that kept the Stars 2-0 lead intact. He didn’t fall for Eberle’s deke attempt, and promptly went spread-eagle to block the chance with his left pad along the ice.
“I had enough time to see who was coming and remember that he likes to deke on penalty shots and breakaways,” Lehtonen said. “I had a feeling what might be coming, but he still made that deke so fast I was really lucky to get something there.”
Soon after Lehtonen denied Eberle, Michael Ryder then scored his second of the game, and team-leading 35th of the season, at 4:11 of the third when he tapped in a slick tic-tac-toe passing play with linemates Mike Ribeiro and Loui Eriksson to ice it.
“We knew they were going to come at us hard and try and get the jump early,” Ryder said. “It was a matter of us staying strong and doing the little things right, and we got the lead which was huge. We kept getting the puck in and got our forecheck going. It was just a matter of us staying strong. We knew we had to come out and win this game.”
Ryder also added an assist, Ribeiro had a goal and two assists, and Eriksson chipped in with a pair of assists for the Stars (42-30-5), who snapped a two-game road losing streak to win for the second time in the last three games overall.
“Last game we took the flow away with a few penalties and stuff like that, and tonight our PK was good and Lehts was great,” Ryder said.
Lehtonen’s shutout bid was spoiled midway through the third on Ales Hemsky’s 10th of the year, and Devan Dubnyk made 22 saves for Edmonton (31-37-9), which lost in regulation for the first time in eight games.
Immediately prior to that goal, Lehtonen was shaken up when he took a Ryan Smyth slap shot to the chin/neck area, and following the tally Lehtonen took his mask off and gathered himself for a couple of minutes while on his knees.
But he was able to continue to finish up a much-needed Stars win.
“We were a little shaky early and Lehts was able to make some big saves,” coach Glen Gulutzan said. “But I thought we were able to get our legs a little bit and made some nice plays. He’s an elite goalie, and he’s up there with the big guys. He’s one of the reasons why we’re fighting for this division title, and fighting for our lives to get in the playoffs. When you get goaltending like that it gives guys confidence, and he’s our MVP.”
With Eric Nystrom nursing a lower-body injury sustained in Monday’s loss at Calgary, 20-year-old rookie Reilly Smith made his NHL debut after signing his first pro contract on Sunday. Smith, Dallas’ third round selection in the 2009 draft, registered a shot on goal on his first shift, and wound up playing four minutes.
“The last couple of days have been a whirlwind,” said Smith, who is nominated for the Hobey Baker Award that is given annually to the top NCAA Division I hockey player. “It’s a dream come true, and I’m trying to soak in every minute of it. My legs felt good, but it’s a whole different style of game. I’m just trying to get used to it. The first shift I was just happy my feet got under me after I hopped over the bench. I’m pretty happy with how things went.”
Ribeiro pushed Dallas’ lead to 2-0 with his 18th of the season 5:04 into the second period on a pretty goal that was assisted by Eriksson. Off on a 2-on-1 break, Ribeiro fed Eriksson in the inner edge of the left circle before Eriksson immediately returned the puck back to Ribeiro, who one-timed it in from below the right circle.
The Stars struck first when Ryder potted his first of the game. Cruising into the Oilers zone, he put a nifty move on Edmonton defenseman Jeff Petry in the slot before deftly slipping the puck past Dubnyk to stake the Stars to a 1-0 lead 11:53 into the opening frame.
“Your big players have to be your best players in game like these, and they were tonight,” Gulutzan said.
The Stars continue their trip out west with their fourth and final game of the season against the Vancouver Canucks on Friday (9 p.m., FS-SW+). It will be the third meeting this month between the two teams, with the first two games being split. Dallas will then open a critical home-and-home series with the Sharks beginning on Saturday in San Jose.
“It doesn’t get easier,” Gulutzan said. “Those are all points we have to claw, scrape or whatever we can do to get something out of those games.”