SAN JOSE – With their season hanging in the balance, the Dallas Stars could not overcome the one scenario that has haunted them all year.
In what might just end up as the Stars’ epitaph for this season, the club once again was unable to come up with a victory on the second night of a back-to-back set, falling 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks Saturday night at the HP Pavilion.
One night after a disappointing 5-2 loss in Vancouver, this defeat to San Jose, which leaves the club a dreadful 1-11-2, outscored by a 52-24 margin, in the second half of back-to-backs this season, was even more damaging to their playoff hopes.
“Every team does it,” Stars captain Brenden Morrow said of the back-to-back bugaboo. “It was a big game, I don’t think fatigue can be an excuse for when we have what’s on the line as we did tonight. Our back-to-back record hasn’t been very good, but it hasn’t been as meaningful as what tonight’s game was in the past.”
With just three games left in the regular season, the Stars remain stuck at 89 points, while the Sharks jump over them to 90. Combined with a Phoenix win and a Los Angeles shootout loss, the Western Conference playoff picture now has LA and Phoenix with 91 points, occupying the third and seventh seeds, respectively, while the Sharks hold the eighth and final playoff spot, pushing Dallas down to ninth.
The Stars completed their four-game road trip with a 1-3-0 record, leaving them a disappointing 3-6-0 in their last nine contests.
“I was a little worried about this game coming in,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan admitted. “We’ve never been good in back-to-backs, and the whole road trip, I think I’m most disappointed with the Calgary game (a 5-4 loss last Monday). We’d be sitting in a different situation with a winnable hockey game, but we are where we are. We still control our own destiny. We don’t need someone to beat somebody else, we just need to win our last three games. Period.”
They are also just 1-4-0 against the Sharks this season, getting outscored by a combined margin of 20-8.
With a rematch coming up in Dallas on Tuesday, the fate of the Stars’ season most likely depends on them being able to turn the tables on the Sharks in that one.
“I thought we had some guys who were there, but it didn’t look like we had much gas, especially the top guys,” Gulutzan said. “You’re never happy when you lose, I think we could have done a few things better there, but we’ve got to move on. We’ve got a big game against this team on Tuesday and our fate’s in our own hands, still. At this juncture of the season, that’s what you have to focus on.”
“Right from the start of the trip in Calgary, we could have made things a lot easier on ourselves,” Morrow said. “We’ve been doing it the hard way all year and we’re kind of in that spot right now. It’s nice to go back home, but we’ve got our work cut out. It’s three tough teams, this is a tough team to play, they’re hungry, they know what’s at stake and it doesn’t get any easier from there.”
Goaltender Kari Lehtonen started his eighth straight contest, and 11th out of the last 12, and delivered a strong performance, making 31 saves one night after allowing four goals on 31 shots before getting pulled midway through the third period in Vancouver.
After putting a lot of emphasis before the game on getting off to a quick start, the Stars wound up surrendering the game’s first goal just 58 seconds into the opening period. A slick pass from Joe Thornton along the left half-wall found Joe Pavelski in the slot for a lethal one-timer that beat Lehtonen just inside the left post.
That set the tone for the entire night, as the Stars were chasing the game right from the start.
“They had a lot of jump and did it to us, and when they got that one early, it kind of set us back,” Gulutzan said. “The early jump was kind of the difference.”
“The game plan was to go at them and try to weather the storm and do kind of exactly what they did to us,” added defenseman Stephane Robidas. “We didn’t do it and they scored right away.”
The Stars nearly tied it on their first power play of the night, at 8:41. Sharks netminder Antti Niemi stopped Robidas’ one-timer blast from the point, but the rebound spit out to the left of the crease, where a wide open Michael Ryder was facing an open net, but his wrist shot was deflected at the last second by San Jose defenseman Justin Braun and out of play.
On the Sharks’ next power play, with Sheldon Souray sitting in the box for a questionable high-sticking penalty, Lehtonen came up with a huge save at 11:05. Patrick Marleau drilled a one-timer from the high slot that nicked off Robidas in front, but Lehtonen managed to get his glove on it, just enough to deflect it over the crossbar.
After the Stars killed that one off, San Jose held a 10-2 edge in shots on goal, and things got worse when Steve Ott was whistled for another questionable penalty, this time for interference at 16:50.
Dallas temporarily dodged a bullet when Marleau snapped a point-blank one-timer from in front past Lehtonen, but it clanked off the left goalpost, at 17:38.
Then, with just 12 seconds remaining on their power play, the Sharks made it 2-0 when Jason Demers found the back of the net at 18:38. Martin Havlat controlled the puck along the left sideboards, drifted into the corner and lifted an aerial pass through the crease to Demers low in the right face-off circle for a backdoor one-timer that just beat a sliding Lehtonen inside the right post.
Trailing by two entering the second, the Stars nearly went down by three at 2:16 when a defensive zone turnover led to Tommy Wingels’ quick wrist shot from the left circle that beat Lehtonen past the blocker, but pinged off the left post.
Dallas generated a good chance 40 seconds later when Toby Petersen controlled the puck along the left boards just inside the San Jose blue line and fed a charging Jake Dowell in the slot, where Dowell jabbed a backhander on net, but Niemi made a nice sliding pad stop.
Several minutes later, a Dallas power play barely controlled the puck in the Sharks’ zone, getting defused by a robust San Jose penalty kill.
Shortly after that, with the clubs skating four-on-four, the Sharks upped their lead to 3-0 on Pavelski’s second of the night and 31st of the year at 9:39. It came off a seemingly routine wrist shot from the left point by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but Pavelski, dueling with Robidas in front, managed to get his stick on it and deflected it past the screened Lehtonen.
Dowell squared off with San Jose’s Andrew Desjardins at 12:42 in the game’s first fight, but it didn’t seem to have much of an impact on the Stars’ energy level.
The Stars’ best scoring chance to that point in the game came at 16:57, when Trevor Daley’s floating wrist shot from the right point was deflected waist-high by Morrow in the high slot, but Niemi was able to make a big save.
“Pretty much everything (went wrong),” Morrow said. “Our start, obviously, I think they doubled us up on shots early in the game. We wanted to be disciplined, stay out of the box, we didn’t do that. make some hay on the power play, play with some desperation. Our backs are against the wall, it was kind of a must-win for us and it wasn’t the start we wanted.”
Down 3-0 heading into the final period, the Stars had a glorious opportunity to snap the shutout at 2:26 on the rush into the San Jose zone. A beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play ended with Mike Ribeiro feeding Loui Eriksson at the right side of the crease, and looking at an open net, Eriksson shanked it wide of the right post.
While the Stars continued to apply considerable pressure in the Sharks’ zone, a few miscues led to lost opportunities, as multiple passes back to the point missed their targets and slid out of the zone.
Fight number two came at 9:07 when Ryan Garbutt pummeled Torrey Mitchell, earning another power play for San Jose, and ratcheting up the physical intensity a notch higher.
A slashing call on Adam Burish at 9:55 provided the Sharks with a 5-on-3 advantage for a full 1:12, as well as earning Ott a 10-minute misconduct for giving the officials some constructive criticism, but the Stars were able to escape unscathed.
Neither team was able to generate much in the way of offense after that, and Niemi wound up with his sixth shutout of the season.
The Stars return home to fulfill the second half of the home-and-home series with the Sharks on Tuesday night at the American Airlines Center (7:30 pm start, FSSW), in another crucial contest that could determine their ultimate fate this season. With only three games left, the margin for error has virtually vanished - if the Stars want to skate in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, they need to win Tuesday.
“We got to take it just like playoffs, it’s almost like we’re down 2-0 in the series, but we’re still alive,” Robidas said. “You just got to bounce back, learn from what we did wrong tonight. We’re playing the same team, it should be fresh in our memory and we know the way they play, we know what they’re trying to do. It’s a good team and but it’s a team we know we can beat. Sometimes when things don’t go well, you try to complicate things and that’s the wrong thing to do. You’ve got to simplify them.”
“It’s a must-win,” Morrow said bluntly. “I don’t know exactly the mathematical equation or what needs to be done, but it’s probably three wins or nothing for us. It’s nice to be able to get them again while the blood’s hot a little bit, get a little redemption, but if we do the same things we did tonight, we’re not going to have the success we want.”
- One night after allowing four goals in the Vancouver loss, Lehtonen hoped for another signature rebound performance. Entering the day, Lehtonen had made a habit of bouncing back from sub-par outings with outstanding ones, compiling an 8-2-0 record in games after surrendering at least four goals, with a stellar 1.78 goals-against average and .943 save percentage.
- Ryder led the Stars with four shots on goal, while Ribeiro topped the squad in ice time, with 22:55.
- The Stars were 0-for-3 on the power play against the Sharks’ 28th-ranked penalty killing unit, leaving them just 1-for-19 over the last six games, dropping them to 29th in the 30-team NHL in PP efficiency.
- The club’s penalty killing unit was 5-for-6 on the night, marking the fifth goal in the last four games the Stars have conceded to opposition power plays. They are now 14-for-19 over that span after putting together an outstanding stretch of killing 41-for-43 over the previous 13.
- The Stars outhit the Sharks by a 42-17 margin, led by defenseman Mark Fistric’s eight and Ott’s six.
- Fistric returned to the lineup after missing five games with an abdominal strain, while fourth-line forward Toby Petersen was back on the ice for the first time since Feb. 26 after sitting out as a healthy scratch for the previous 15 contests.
- Serving as healthy scratches to make room for Petersen and Fistric were rookie forward Reilly Smith, who played the two previous games after finishing up his senior season at Miami (Ohio), and blueliner Adam Pardy, who had skated in the previous five outings.
- Winger Radek Dvorak sat out for the fourth consecutive contest with a lower body injury while fellow third-line winger Eric Nystrom missed his third in a row with a cut on his leg. Fourth-line center Tom Wandell also sat out for the second straight night due to illness.
- The Stars were shut out for the sixth time this season, but the first since falling 1-0 to St. Louis back on Jan. 16.
- San Jose’s Thornton picked up two assists in the game, giving him 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in five games against the Stars this season.
1 - 0 SJS
2 - 0 SJS
3 - 0 SJS
Interference on goalkeeper