The coming of a new year is a wonderful time to discover the resolutions to which one should aspire. After winning on New Year’s Eve against the Los Angeles Kings, the Dallas Stars rang in the new year with a dud – three straight losses. Their suddenly dismal team defense and lack of puck possession were in direct contrast to the style of play that highlighted their spirited play from October through December.
After enjoying a seven-game point streak (5-0-2), the Stars suffered consecutive losses to the visiting Montreal Canadiens (6-4 on Thursday, Jan. 2) and Detroit Red Wings (5-1 on Saturday, Jan. 4), and to the host New York Islanders (7-3 on Monday, Jan. 6).
The setbacks surely detracted from the announcement that four Stars will represent their countries at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, from Feb. 7 – 23. Forward and team captain Jamie Benn will skate for Team Canada, while goalie Kari Lehtonen will don his native Finland’s colors and rookie forward Valeri Nichushkin will represent Russia. In addition, coach Lindy Ruff will be an associate mentor behind Team Canada’s bench.
The match on Long Island marked the first time since 1996 that Dallas has allowed 18 goals in a three-game stretch. The Stars also had yielded seven goals and lost their third straight match for the first time this season.
The slump prevented Dallas (20-15-7) from claiming a share of 8th place in the Western Conference wild card standings. The Stars, who had been surging toward what they hope will be their first playoff berth since 2008, were four points behind both 9th place Phoenix and Minnesota in the Western Conference wild card race.
Dallas actually jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the Islanders, on goals by Benn (his 15th of the season) and forward Erik Cole (his 11th). But Dallas, which welcomed the return of veteran defensemen Sergei Gonchar (who missed six games with concussion-like symptoms) and Trevor Daley (14 games due to a high ankle sprain), allowed four goals in the 2nd period and three more in the third as Islanders captain John Tavares finished with a hat trick and five points. The Stars had tied the score 3-3 on Nichushkin’s 9th of the season before New York regained the lead for good with a goal in the last half minute before the second intermission.
“That’s probably the most disappointing [game] of the whole year,” Ruff said after the opener of a three-game East Coast road swing. “We were outskated. We couldn’t win one-on-one battles. They basically looked how we usually look. Their legs, their energy and their puck management were all better. That might have been our worst game of the year. It was a team giveaway.”
Lehtonen suffered his worst outing of the season despite making 36 saves against the upstart Isles. “After the Montreal [loss], I felt I was going down too quickly,” said Lehtonen, who allowed 14 of the 18 goals in the team’s three-game skid. “[The Islanders are] a team that is crafty, so I really wanted to be patient today. It worked for the first 30 minutes, but they made some good plays, and I have to be better.”
The loss to Detroit occurred despite the Stars’ ability to launch 45 shots at the Red Wings’ net. Dallas, which went 0-for-7 on the power play, trailed 3-1 after one period despite outshooting Detroit, 20-13. Shawn Horcoff had tied the score, 1-1, with his 5th goal while the Stars were shorthanded.
Linemate Rich Peverley also appeared to have scored midway through the second period – which would have cut Detroit’s lead to 3-2 – but the referee ruled that play had been stopped before the puck crossed the goal line behind goalie Jimmy Howard.
The Stars’ defense allowed numerous scoring opportunities, especially after they lost back liner Aaron Rome to an upper body injury after the first period. In particular, Dallas committed 17 giveaways while playing a loose brand of hockey in the neutral zone.
“You can’t do that against [Detroit],” Benn said. “You turn the puck over against them, and they’ll make you pay. That’s what happened tonight.”
Goalie Dan Ellis allowed three goals on 13 shots before being replaced by Lehtonen, who allowed two goals on 14 shots over the final 40 minutes.
While the Stars’ puck possession was outstanding in the loss to Montreal, their defense was extremely sloppy, particularly in the neutral zone.
“It wasn’t very good,” Ruff said after the Stars tied the score, 4-4 in the 3rd period, only to surrender the game-winning goal. “Our strength in this run has been how we defended, and [tonight we weren’t] good. This was a team loss – this wasn’t on one player. We didn’t move the puck very well. We weren’t responsible enough.”
“I was concerned after going through the stretch we went through with a couple real emotional wins that we might get loose, and we were loose [tonight],” Ruff added. “Parts of this game, I thought we gambled on the offensive side and some real good chances that we normally don’t.”
Benn’s 14th goal of the season gave Dallas an early 1-0 lead, and Nichushkin converted a penalty shot to tie the game at 2-2 in the second stanza. Trailing 4-2 in the third period, Stars forward Tyler Seguin netted his 21st marker and defenseman Brenden Dillon again knotted the game with his 5th red light.
But Lehtonen was beaten just 130 seconds later for the eventual game winner and finished with 22 saves in a performance he’d sooner forget.
“We put [Lehtonen] under a lot of stress, especially late when we were trying to get back in the game,” Ruff said. “I thought there was a couple that he’d probably like back, even the game-winning goal, he maybe anticipated that he was going to cross the crease there. He still gave us a chance when the game was on the line to get back in it, but we weren’t good enough as a team. This wasn’t about one guy, or the goalie, this was kind of a collective effort, defensively we didn’t move the puck very well, offensively we did enough things to battle to get back but we weren’t responsible enough to help out our defense in a lot of situations.”
“I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t believe we deserved to win that game,” said Seguin, who leads the Stars in goals and points. “I didn’t think we earned it. I think they were faster than us tonight, they competed harder than us tonight, and I think we got a little complacent after having a solid few games in a row. We’ve got to be good at practice tomorrow and get ready for a heck of a team in Detroit on Saturday.”
Stars’ Player of the Week: Valeri Nichushkin
Although it may seem hollow to name a player of the week during a three-game losing streak, Stars forward Valeri Nichushkin provided outstanding play and a pair of goals (his 8th and 9th) as he continues to impress during his first season in the NHL. The 18-year-old sniper, selected by Dallas 10th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, will represent his native Russia in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 7 – 23. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Nichushkin combines good skating and speed with a massive frame and talent that many feel has not even come close to being tapped.