DALLAS – With their playoff destiny in their own hands, the Stars lost their grip.
With three games to go in the regular season, and the Stars in the middle of a muddled playoff picture in the Western Conference, the formula for them to secure a spot in the postseason tournament seemed simple enough heading into Tuesday’s game against the San Jose Sharks -- earn a hat trick of victories and they’re in the dance. But following a hurtful 5-2 loss to the Sharks at American Airlines Center, Dallas finds itself needing not only a pair of season-ending wins, but also some assistance.
The Sharks swept the home-and-home series that began with a shutout loss Saturday in San Jose, and in turn put a crimp in the Stars’ playoff aspirations. Dallas remains in ninth place in the West with 89 points, four behind Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles, which holds onto the third seed, and three behind the Sharks. The Stars were also two behind Phoenix, which entered its game late Tuesday against Columbus with 91 points.
“That one stings,” captain Brenden Morrow said. “You like to be able to control your own fate, and we had that but we let it go. Now we’re going to need a lot of help. We had a great start, a lot of energy, and carried the play for half the game, but just didn’t stick with it. It’s going to be tough, but we just can’t quit. Stranger things have happened.”
The game basically came down to a 25-second stretch late in the third period when the Stars were down by a goal. Jamie Benn went in alone on San Jose goalie Antti Niemi with just over five minutes to go in regulation, but was unable to slip the puck through Niemi’s legs on his deke attempt. Joe Thornton promptly responded to the big stop by snapping home a shot that went in over Kari Lehtonen’s left shoulder to give San Jose a 4-2 lead with 4:50 left in regulation.
Ryane Clowe then iced it with an empty-net goal with 64 seconds to go to send the Stars (42-33-5) to their third straight loss.
“It was a must win for us,” Stephane Robidas said. “We got off to a good start and outshot them. But we just came out short. We got the lead and got them to where we wanted them to be, but then they scored and after that just kept playing their game.”
Morrow and Alex Goligoski scored, and Lehtonen finished with 21 saves for Dallas, which has gone just 3-7-0 since an electrifying six-game winning streak landed them into the top spot in the Pacific. But this current stretch has put them in a position where they are now forced to wait for someone to answer their knocks on the door in order to get into the postseason party.
“There are a few things throughout the game that we could have done better,” coach Glen Gulutzan said. “Now we need help. You just have to start preparing and have business as usual. There’s no other way to look at it. You gotta go win a game.”
Logan Couture had a goal and assist, and Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi also scored for the Sharks (41-29-10), who snapped a four-game losing streak on the road. The Sharks will close out their season with a home-and-home series with the Kings starting on Thursday.
Niemi made 29 saves to secure his 33rd win of the season.
The Stars were also unable to get a lift off a big penalty kill early on in the third period when they were down 3-2. After Mark Fistric was handed a double-minor for high sticking Thornton, Dallas efficiently and effectively erased the advantage, but inexplicably couldn’t derive a lot of energy from the big kill.
“There are so many different momentum changes in games,” Morrow said. “Sometimes we react the right way, and sometimes you try and do too much and take a little bit on yourself, and do things that wind up shooting yourself in the foot. When we got down a goal or two, that’s what we started to do -- we started to do too much rather than getting pucks deep and pucks at the net.”
With the game tied at 1 after 20 minutes, Goligoski drilled in his ninth of the year with 8:50 left in the second period to give the Stars their first and only lead of the game at 2-1. Benn went around the net and found Goligoski in the middle of the ice at the blue line, and Goligoski’s ensuing slap shot whizzed past Niemi.
But the advantage was short-lived, as Galiardi tied it at 2 just 32 seconds later. Skating through the right circle, he accepted Dominic Moore’s pass from below the goal line before lifting a shot over Lehtonen’s left shoulder from the bottom of the circle.
“After we went up 2-1, we made a mistake with coverage, and always right after a goal you need a good shift, and we didn’t get it,” Gulutzan said. “That got them right back in the game, and we had no chance to build off the momentum of that goal.”
San Jose then took the lead, 3-2, on Couture’s 31st goal while the Sharks enjoyed a power play with 2:36 left in the second. Standing in the slot, he redirected Martin Havlat’s pass from along the right boards.
The Sharks struck first in controversial fashion with 7:51 left in the first on a goal by Winnik. From the right point, Brent Burns sent a shot toward the net just as San Jose’s Tommy Wingels upended Lehtonen by kicking his feet out from under him. The shot went wide, but Winnik was able to corral the rebound and shoot the puck towards the net from a sharp angle. The puck wound up ricocheting in off Lehtonen, who was unable to defend the play after the interference.
Morrow tied it with 2:13 to go in the first with his 11th of the season, making it 1-1 heading into the first intermission. Picking up the puck behind the goal line, he whipped a backhand pass out to the front after rounding the net, but the puck banked off Niemi’s stick and trickled through his legs.
The Stars play their final road game of the season on Thursday when they travel to Nashville to play the Predators (7 p.m., FS-SW), who defeated the Minnesota Wild in a shootout on Tuesday. Dallas wraps things up Saturday when it hosts the St. Louis Blues at American Airlines Center.
“We’re against the wall right now,” Robidas said. “All we can do is battle, and we have to do it for each other. That’s why you play 82 games.”