Playing in their first Stanley Cup post season competition since 2008, the #8-seeded Dallas Stars wanted to make a statement after falling into a 2-0 hole against Western Conference’s #1 seeded Anaheim. That’s exactly what the men in green did on Monday, April 21, drying off the Ducks, 3-0 behind the stellar netminding of goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
Dallas trails two games to one with Game Four set for Wednesday night at the American Airlines Center.
Although the Stars were outshot 37-22, Lehtonen was perfect between the pipes in shutting down a team that led the NHL with 3.21 goals per game during the regular season. Just four minutes after the opening faceoff, the Big Finn served notice that beating him would be next to impossible when he stopped Saku Koivu attempting to slip a backhand shot past him from the short side. The save, which lifted the spirits of the enthusiastic 19,120 fans at American Airlines Center, was an omen of things to come.
Lehtonen registered 13 stops in the first period and 17 more in the 2nd to record his first playoff shutout and 6th whitewash of the season, and the first playoff goose egg by a Stars goalie since Marty Turco blanked the Ducks, 4-0 in the opening game of their series in 2008.
“At the age of 30, it was about time to get that first (career playoff victory),” said Lehtonen after posting his first post-season win in five career games (including two losses with Atlanta in 2007). “I think tonight when the puck was coming at me, it always seemed to hit something or bounce past me. In the two other games (at Anaheim), I felt like all those kind of plays seemed to go the other way. Some nights it goes that way no matter what you try to do. I’ve learned that my game doesn’t get better if I start trying to over-do things and be more aggressive.”
“(Kari) was calm, he was under control and made some great saves for us,” coach Lindy Ruff said of Lehtonen, who fueled the Stars’ stretch run to the playoffs with a 12-2-1 mark that included three shutouts and six one-goal outings. “He made some real timely saves and just looked really comfortable in net. Kari’s play back there was a calming force for us. I think he made a statement that he was determined to be better than he was in the previous game. And I asked all the players to be determined to be better in some small areas, and I thought we were tonight.”
The Stars grabbed a 1-0 lead just :35 before the first intermission when captain Jamie Benn emerged from the penalty box, joined the rush and connected for his 2nd goal of the playoffs off the rebound of a shot by Shawn Horcoff . “We wanted to get off to a good start and we found a way tonight,” Benn said. “(I) got a little bit of a lucky bounce there and it was fortunate enough there to go in the net.”
Dallas, which went five-for-five on the penalty kill, increased the lead to 2-0 in the 2nd period after stifling another Ducks power play. Rookie Valeri Nichushkin took a pass from Tyler Seguin and beat Ducks’ goalie Frederik Andersen on a rush from the top of the right faceoff circle for his first playoff goal with less than three minutes remaining until intermission.
“I thought everyone did a great job (on the penalty kill),” Benn said. “(The Ducks have) a lot of skilled guys there. They know how to move that thing around. We did a good job as a group taking their time and space away. Any time you can get some momentum off the penalty kill, you want to take advantage of its.”
Forward Ryan Garbutt netted his 2nd playoff goal in two games to make it 3-0 midway through the 3rd period by potting the rebound of Cody Eakin’s shot. The Stars appeared to benefit from a loud, boisterous crowd that was behind them throughout the game.
“I thought the atmosphere was tremendous,” said Ruff. “I got on the bench, took a look around and it just put a big smile on my face with the energy and the waving of the towels. It’s my first playoff game here in Dallas and I thought the crowd was tremendous. You could tell they had been waiting for a playoff game. They got a game they liked and they had something they could cheer about. We wanted a little boost from our fans and, as much as Anaheim got a boost from theirs, we got a boost from ours and it was great to see.”
“We did a lot of good things but we didn’t score,” said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. “It’s a real difference playing with the lead and playing from behind in this league (giving you) confidence to take chances. When we were pressing a little too much there, it was giving (Dallas) some odd-man breaks, but I thought chance-wise and skating-wise and territorial-wise, that we were a lot better tonight than we’ve been in the first two games.”
In addition to the hockey game, Anaheim also lost former Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas, who was helped off the ice with a fractured right leg early in the 2nd period. Robidas, who was upended by Garbutt in front of the Dallas net, was unable to put any weight on his right foot and was transported to a local hospital, leaving the Ducks with only five healthy defensemen.
“It’s a huge loss because he was playing great,” Boudreau said. “And of course, I think all the guys on the bench felt extremely bad for him. Here’s your teammate who’s just fought his way back from a broken leg (suffered in his last appearance at the AAC while with the Stars in late-November). I don’t know what the extent of the injury is. I know it doesn’t look good and he’s probably out for a long time. You have to feel for an athlete that worked so hard to get back and then that same thing happens to him.”
The Ducks were not thrilled with how Stars’ forward Antoine Roussel took shots at Anaheim forward Ryan Getzlaf, a force in each of the first two games of the series who was wearing a cage to protect a facial injury suffered at the end of Game One. “It’s just something that I guess you do anything to win, but it’s not something that I think our team would do,” said Boudreau. “We’ll take them and be as physical and be as mean as they want, but obviously they know there’s something wrong with his jaw, so they’re going after it.”
Getzlaf said he wanted to stay as disciplined as possible, “but you’ve got to protect yourself, too. It’s part of the game, and obviously I never expected them to target my face that much, but that’s the way it goes. Did they cross the line? Well, there’s class. You can play hard and do all the things you want, but me, personally, if a guy has a bad jaw I’m not going to hit him (there). But everybody’s different.”
Countered Ruff, “We tried to play hard, we tried to play the man. There were a couple of scrums that I’m pretty sure if you watch (them), our guys got punched in the face a few times. When you’re getting punched in the face, I think eventually you’re going to punch back. Playoff hockey’s emotional.”
Keeping his emotions in check, Lehtonen is looking forward to tying the series in Game Four, with Game Five set for Friday in Anaheim. “Of course I feel better after this (win),” he said. “But these games are so exciting. There’s no time to think about what has happened in the past and things like that. I just have to keep going. Be patient and be alert. That’s the kind of stuff I keep telling myself.”
Dallas Stars Player of the Game – Kari Lehtonen
The Finnish-born goaltender registered his first Stanley Cup Playoff victory and shutout with 37 saves to upend Anaheim, 3-0 and cut the Ducks’ lead in the best-of-seven opening round series to two games to one. Lehtonen registered 13 stops in the first period and 17 more in the 2nd to record his first playoff shutout and 6th whitewash of the season, and the first goose egg by a Stars goalie since Marty Turco blanked the Ducks, 4-0 in the opening game of their series in 2008.