There is a new force emerging in the NHL’s Western Conference.
The Dallas Stars, seeking their first playoff berth since 2008, are riding a wave of youth and a swift skating approach to dominate conference foes – even those who are among the leading teams. First year Stars’ coach Lindy Ruff’s charges completed an abbreviated West Coast Swing on Monday, Dec. 23 with a convincing 5-2 triumph over the host L.A. Kings after dropping a 3-2 shootout at San Jose.
The Stars’ 3rd win in their last four games gave them three standings points on the two-game trek for a total of 42 (18-12-6), just three behind 8th place Phoenix.
“We’re trying to gain points in our conference, and the only way we’re going to do it is by beating good teams,” said Ruff after the victory over the Kings. “Our young defensemen responded well to the challenge.”
The Stars have received outstanding play from rookie defensemen Kevin Connauton and Cameron Gaunce after losing veteran backliners Stephane Robidas (broken leg), Trevor Daley (high ankle sprain), Aaron Rome (lower body ailment) and Sergei Gonchar (concussion-like symptoms).
“We played hard as a group,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn after collecting a goal and two assists in the game. “Our (defensemen) played really well. We don’t have too much experience back there, but they handled themselves well against one of the best teams in the league.”
The Kings’ Anze Kopitar admitted that the Kings “weren’t as sharp as we wanted to be. Obviously, (the Stars) have some guys that can put the puck in the net.”
Dallas became the first NHL team to solve rookie netminder Martin Jones, who tied Philadelphia Flyer Bob Froese’s 31-year-old NHL record on Dec. 21 vs. Colorado by winning each of his first eight NHL games. Jones, who was pursuing then-Ottawa Senator Ray Emery’s mark of nine straight winning decisions to begin an NHL career against Dallas, was beaten in the 1st period by Tyler Seguin from the slot following a nice cross-ice feed from Benn to tie the score, 1-1. Seguin’s 19th goal of the season ended the Kings’ streak in which they had shut out 11 straight visiting opponents during the opening period at The Staples Center.
Dallas took a 2-1 lead less than three minutes later when Benn beat the 23-year old netminder to the short side with a backhander for his 11th of the season. After Los Angeles tied the score, 2-2 late in the 1st period, 18-yar old Stars’ rookie forward Valeri Nichushkin gave the Stars a 3-2 lead early in the 2nd with his 7th goal of the season on a power play one-timer set up by Seguin. The helper gave Seguin 13 goals and 21 points in his last 18 games,
It was the 2nd time this season that each member of Dallas’ top line of Benn, Seguin and Nichushkin has each scored a goal in the same game. The trio has accounted for 15 goals and 29 points in the Starss’ last nine games. “Tyler’s got elite speed, Jamie’s got elite puck-handling skills and a shot, and so does Tyler,” Ruff pointed out. “And the 18-year-old (Nichushkin) is young to be something special. They bring a lot of good things like size and speed, and that’s tough (for an opposing line and defense) to handle.”
Center Cody Eakin’s 8th tally of the year gave the Stars some breathing by making it 4-2 with less than five minutes remaining in the 3rd period, and forward Shawn Horcoff was awarded an empty-net goal – his 4th tally of the season — after being tripped from behind inside the Kings zone with the empty net yawning.
“We are trying to gain points in a really tough conference,” said Ruff. “The only way we’re going to do that is to beat good teams. We lost a tough point in San Jose (Saturday night) in a game we thought we played real well. (Maybe) we were going to get outplayed by a greater margin with (our) young defense, but I thought they responded well to the challenge. It’s a big two points for us.”
Kings goalie Jones, who has been filling in for the injured Jonathan Quick, came within one victory of tying Quick’s franchise record for consecutive wins. Jones also had allowed only eight goals on 234 shots in his previous eight games, as well as fewer than three goals against in any of those games. That is the longest such streak by a starting rookie goalie since Boston’s Frankie Brimsek’s 12-game stretch in 1938-39.
Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen made 30 saves to earn his 11th road victory and improve to 14-8-6 for the season as the Stars handed the Kings just their 2nd loss in 11 games and 3rd setback in regulation over LA’s last 23 matches.
Tough Loss in San Jose
Two nights before on Dec. 21, the Stars failed to protect the 2-0 lead they had built by the 2nd period while winning the shots on goal battle by 46-39. San Jose rallied to send the game to a shootout, where Sharks’ reserve goalie Alex Stalock stopped all five Dallas shooters before Joe Thornton scored in the 5th round. The 3-2 triumph was the Sharks’ 5th straight victory over Dallas at SAP Center.
“(This loss) really hurt,” said winger Antoine Roussel, who continued his torrid play that included his 8th goal of the season. “For us, it’s a learning curve still. It’s always frustrating to lose and tonight it felt deeper. (San Jose) pushes back and finds a way to win. We played a great game but we couldn’t get the big bounce.”
Coach Ruff added that “we could have put the game away in the 2nd period. I thought we really skated well and didn’t get much ‘puck luck’ tonight. I think we could have won it in the 2nd — just put the game away. We had them right where we wanted them and we probably had five or six (good) opportunities to get the third one. I think it’s going to be tough to make that battle and we didn’t quite put the foot on the head of the snake.”
Forward Ray Whitney gave Dallas a 1-0 lead in the opening period when he lifted a backhand shot through a defenseman and the goalie for his 4th of the season, 3rd in the last 3 games, and 35th career point in 37 games vs. San Jose. Roussel deflected in an Alex Goligoski shot to make it 2-0 early in period two. Four minutes later, the Stars appeared to take a 3-0 lead when forward Colton Sceviour pushed a loose puck across the goal line. But Referee Mike Leggo blew the play dead, thinking the puck, which was still in play, had been frozen.
Despite the Stars’ ability to skate well and play cohesive team hockey, San Jose scored once each later in the 2nd stanza and early in the 3rd period to knot the game at 2-2. “You have to give (the Stars) credit,” said San Jose Coach Todd McLellan. “They can skate and make it difficult on you. They play four lines that can all compete. They made it tough on us.”
Stars veteran forward Vernon Fiddler was activated from injured reserve and returned to the lineup after missing six games with an upper body injury. In addition, Dallas defenseman Gonchar suffered concussion-like symptoms during the game.
Stars Player of the Week: Tyler Seguin
Tyler Seguin, arguably the best offseason acquisition by any NHL squad, has contributed mightily to the Stars transition into a bona fide playoff contender this season. Acquired from Boston with winger Rich Peverley and prospect Ryan Button for left wing Loui Eriksson and prospects Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser and Joe Morrow, Seguin (pronounced “say-ghin”) is the Stars’ leading scorer with 37 points. He scored his team-leading 19th goal and set up the game-winner by linemate Valeri Nichushkin in a 5-2 Stars win at Los Angeles. The red-hot Seguin, whom the Bruins selected as the 2nd overall pick of the 2010 NHL entry draft, has 13 goals and 21 points in his last 18 games.