Stars Cling to One-Point Lead in Playoff Race

Although the Dallas Stars still control their own playoff destiny with one week and four games remaining in their regular season, coach Lindy Ruff’s skater missed a golden opportunity to lock up their first post-season berth since the 2007-08 campaign.

The Stars completed their longest road trip of the season by splitting the final four games, defeating two playoff contenders by a combined score of 10-2 while losing to a pair of non-contenders.

Dallas whitewashed Washington 5-0 on Tuesday, April 1 before losing at Carolina, 4-1 on Thursday, April 3. Then they upended Tampa Bay (which has clinched a post-season berth) 5-2 on Saturday, April 5 before dropping a 4-2 verdict at Florida on Sunday, April 6 to complete the five-game road swing.

As a result, the Stars (38-29-11 for 87 points) begin the final week of the regular season in the Western Conference’s final playoff berth, eighth place, and one point ahead of Phoenix. Each team has four games remaining, including a head-to-head finale Sunday night, April 13 in Arizona. The Stars own the initial tiebreaker (35-30 representing regulation and overtime victories excluding shootout wins) over the Coyotes, and remain five points behind 7th place Minnesota.

The loss to the Panthers on April 6 was particularly galling in that the Stars had built a 2-0 lead early in the second period. Florida tied the game before the end of the middle stanza before winning it with 4:31 left in regulation. Dallas failed to earn a point in its two-game season series against the Atlantic Division’s Panthers, which included a 3-2 loss in Dallas on Opening Night, October 3.

“We stopped skating (and) you can’t do that, you have to play a full 60 minutes in these games,” captain Jamie Benn said after Dallas failed to expand its lead over Phoenix. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, they’re not going to give us these games. We have to put this one behind us — it was obviously a terrible outcome. We don’t want to remember this one.”

Benn gave Dallas a 1-0 lead with his 3rd goal in two days and his 2nd marker under a minute into the game in less than 24 hours. Benn notched his 33rd goal of the season on a partial breakaway, depositing the disc behind Florida netminder Roberto Luongo. Leading scorer Tyler Seguin, who assisted on Benn’s goal, netted his career- and team-high 36th of the year less than a minute into period number two for a 2-0 Stars lead.

But Florida scored midway through the period and during the final minute of the 2nd session to set up its game-winner in the third stanza.

“(These are) tough points to lose,” Seguin said. “It wasn’t a good game for us. No excuses, even though (there were) back-to-back (games). We expect better. At this point in the year, being tired is just a mental thing. We’re not going to use fatigue as an excuse. We’ve got to find a way to get points.”

Goalie Kari Lehtonen, who made 21 saves, saw his record fall to 31-20-10. “(Kari’s)s been playing great,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “There’s nothing Kari could have done on any of the goals.

“We tried hard to win the game in the third period,” Ruff added. “Just before (Florida’s game-winning goal), I think Luongo got a piece of (Benn’s shot) and it went out the other side. We just didn’t manage the puck well enough on the entrance and it cost us.”

Team Captain Benn said the team knows what it needs to do in the coming week against Nashville on Tuesday, Columbus on Wednesday and St. Louis at home Friday, and at Phoenix on Sunday. “We’re prepared, we know what is ahead of us,” he said. “We have a day off (Monday) and we’ll come back ready to play.”

Stars win in Tampa, move ahead of Phoenix

Team captain Benn stepped up like he has all season, netting a pair of goals and adding an assist in the opening period as the Stars used an early 3-0 lead as the foundation for an crucial 5-2 triumph in Tampa Bay on April 5. The team’s 3rd win in four games and their fourth win in the last five contests moved the Stars one point ahead of Phoenix and into the Western Conference’s final playoff berth. Dallas earned two of a possible four points in its two-game season series against the Atlantic Division’s Lightning, including a 4-2 loss in Dallas on March 1.

Benn took control of the game just 40 seconds after the opening faceoff by redirecting a shot by defenseman Alex Goligoski from the boards past Bolts goalie Ben Bishop for his 31st goal of the season and a 1-0 Dallas lead. “The first shift of the game can mean a lot,” said Benn. “You want to set the tempo right away and we got a quick goal.”

Benn made it 2-0 less than six minutes into the game when he beat Bishop from the right faceoff circle, then set up linemate Seguin for his team- and career-high 35th marker with less than 90 seconds left in the period for a 3-0 Dallas advantage.

After Tampa answered with a pair of 2nd period goals to cut the Stars’ lead to 3-2, veteran forward Vernon Fiddler gave Dallas some breathing room with his 6th of the season on a backhander less than a minute and a half into the 3rd stanza that made it 4-3. Forward Antoine Roussel added his 14th goal, also on a backhander with a little more than 12 minutes left in regulation go help the Stars breathe easier. “What we talked about after the second (period) was that we won the first and they won the second, and now it’s time to make a statement that we were going to take it to them and not sit on the lead,” coach Ruff said after goalie Lehtonen made 27 saves. “At 3-2 any bounce can beat you. But we got on our toes and we confronted every puck and (during) every battle we were there. We didn’t give them a lot of time. As confident as you can be about our team playing a good period, you want to see (us) do it, and I thought (we) did it.”

Stars Fall in Carolina

The Stars missed an outstanding opportunity to put some separation between themselves and Phoenix for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference, dropping a 4-1 verdict at Carolina. Dallas yielded three goals – two while shorthanded — in a 4:36 span of the 2nd period. Stars’ netminder Lehtonen was pulled after the third marker.

The verdict prevented the Stars from sweeping the two-game season series against the Metropolitan Division’s Hurricanes, including a 4-1 Dallas victory over Carolina on Feb. 27.

Carolina grabbed the lead for good when a John-Michael Liles even strength shot that deflected off Hurricanes’ forward Eric Staal’s skate, fluttered high into the air and spun behind goalie Lehtonen for a 1-0 Hurricanes’ lead.

“It’s a weird goal but we take a couple penalties and they score back-to-back on power plays,” said Stars defenseman Goligoski. “Any time that happens, it’s not a good thing, so we got kind of behind the eight ball there. We had a little push coming back at the end of the second there, but when you’re down 3-0, it’s tough.”

Seguin’s 34th goal midway through the 2nd session closed the gap to 3-1 and gave the Stars some hope of rallying.

But Dallas forward Alex Chiasson was robbed by Carolina goalie Anton Khudobin just a half minute into period three, and the Hurricanes added an insurance goal with less than eight minutes to play in the 3rd period.

“(If Chiasson scores) we could have been right back in the game,” Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said. “We didn’t finish. I thought the fact we didn’t take advantage of a couple real good chances (in the 1st period) was a turning point). I thought that Khudobin made a couple real good saves that kept the game (scoreless).

“I didn’t like the fact we weren’t able to kill off a couple penalties,” coach Ruff added. “(Our problem was a) lack of aggression — we sat inside too much. We gave them room, gave them some time. You do that when you’re tired out there. I thought we did that when we were fresh.”

Jeffrey’s Pair Helps Stars Blank Capitals

The Stars continued to receiving scoring from deep in their lineup as forward Dustin Jeffrey netted his first two goals in a Dallas uniform to fuel a 5-0 victory at Washington on Tuesday, April 1. As a result, the Stars captured all four available points in their two-game season series against Washington of the Metropolitan Division, including a 2-1 triumph in Dallas on Oct. 5.

Registering its third straight victory by a combined score of 16-5, Dallas won most of the puck battles against a Caps squad that is fighting for a playoff berth in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. The new line of Jeffrey, Ray Whitney and Chiasson accounted for three goals and four assists to help the club move into a tie for 8th place and the final Western Conference playoff berth with Phoenix.

The Stars’ marquee line did grab part of the spotlight late in the 1st period and give the team a 1-0 lead when Seguin registered his 33rd goal by redirecting a Jamie Benn feed past Caps’ goalie Jaroslav Halak. Whitney made it 2-0 midway through the 2nd session with his 9th of the year on an odd-man rush set up by a long feed from defenseman Goligoski.

Just 34 seconds later, Jeffrey netted his first goal as a Star to make it 3-0 when he converted Chiasson’s rebound. The Nov. 17 waiver acquisition from Pittsburgh added a one-timer off a pass from Whitney midway through the 3rd period to make it 4-0, and winger Ryan Garbutt added his 16th just five minutes later with the Stars shorthanded to finish the scoring.

“We came out pretty hard and they pushed back, but I think we handled that well,” said Whitney. “Our (level of competitiveness) was really there tonight.”

Chiasson said the line’s contributions underscore the entire team’s skill level. “From Day 1 (beginning late in the 2012-13 season), it seemed Ray and I have clicked. We have struggled at times, and I’ll be the first to admit that, but I think he’s a great guy to play with,” said Chiasson, who contributed three helpers. “And tonight, D.J. (Jeffrey) played a great game. We’re going to try to build on this and help the team as much as we can.”

Jeffrey registered an assist in 12 Stars’ games between mid-November and mid-January before being sent to the Texas Stars (Cedar Park) of the American Hockey League. After scoring four goals and 10 points in 21 AHL games, he was recalled by the big club on March 24.

“It was important for me to get my confidence back,’’ Jeffrey said. “To go down and play there and get a lot of opportunities, and that has been big. The fact our line contributed so much tonight is huge. (Each of our opponents is) focusing on our top line, so we have to be able to score…especially on the road. We have to chip in.”

Goalie Lehtonen tied a career high with his fourth shutout of the year after making 35 saves. “I think he made some big saves in the second period, and even in the third period there he robbed them a couple times,” said Chiasson, whose team finished the night in a tie with Phoenix for 8th place in the Western Conference. “I think we know this year, he’s our best player, and he makes the difference.”

“I just try to stay extra calm and wait for the players to make their moves,” said Lehtonen after blanking a Washington squad whose top two players – Nicklas Backstrom (73 points) and Alex Ovechkin (48 goals, 72 points) – have not lit the lamp during a 5-on-5 situation since Feb. 27. “I’m fortunate to have a few good games in a row here and hopefully I can keep it going. It’s fun playing when there’s a lot on the line and every game is so huge.”

Dallas Stars Player of the Week – Jamie Benn

The Stars’ team captain keyed an important win at Tampa Bay on Saturday, April 5 by scoring two goals and an assist, including the opening marker less than a minute into the game. Ben also scored a minute into the game the following day at Florida. For the week, he registered three goals and five points.

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