The Stars captured two of their four games coming out of the Winter Olympic break to slightly strengthen their hold on the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings.
Dallas defeated visiting Carolina, 4-1 on February 27 and visiting Buffalo 3-2 on March 3 while losing by the same 4-2 count to visiting Tampa Bay on March 1 and to host Columbus on March 4. The Stars, seeking their first Stanley Cup playoff berth since 2008, finished the week at 29-23-10 for 68 points, one point ahead of 9th place Phoenix and Winnipeg.
Dallas dropped its verdict in Columbus after falling behind 3-0 for the 2nd time in three games. Dan Ellis, making his first appearance in goal since Feb. 1 and giving Kari Lehtonen a rare night off, was victimized just over a minute into the match, and the Blue Jackets led by three goals 15 minutes into the opening period. The following day, Ellis was swapped to Florida for goalie Tim Thomas.
“It was tough to track the puck and to get a feel for the flow of the game,” said Ellis, whose team has been outscored 6-0 in the 1st period of its last three games. “When you have that much time off, it’s tough to replicate anything like that in practice, and I think things came a lot quicker than you would anticipate and I didn’t make the saves I needed to. (It’s tough) to have to take a learning experience from a loss, but I need to, and I need to find a way to become better prepared for the next game.”
“That’s not the start we want in any game, especially this time of the year when every game’s going to be tight,’’ team captain Jamie Benn said after Dallas outshot Columbus 33-20. “There (won’t) be too many blowouts from now on, so you’ve got to come out with a strong start and be ready to go every game here.”
Dallas rallied and cut the deficit to 3-2 early in the 3rd period, scoring twice in less than two minutes on goals by defensemen Alex Goligoski, (his 4th of the year and 2nd in two games, and Trevor Daley’s 4th of the season. Goligoski’s power play tally was the Stars’ 2nd in two games, but only the 3rd in their last 34 chances over a nine-game span. It was also the 2nd straight game in which two different defensemen scored for Dallas.
But Columbus, which is battling for a playoff spot in its first season in the Eastern Conference, padded the lead with less than five minutes remaining when Artem Anisimov netted his 2nd marker of the night.
The previous evening, Dallas celebrated Coach Lindy Ruff’s 600th career victory on March 3 after goal-challenged forward Alex Chiasson deflected a Jamie Benn power play slap shot from outside the faceoff circle past Buffalo goalie Jhonas Enroth to break a 2-2 tie and give Dallas its 3-2 win over Buffalo.
“(Winning 600 games) means I’m on my way to 700, hopefully,” chuckled Ruff, who earned his first 571 coaching triumphs behind the Sabres’ bench. “It means that I’ve had a lot of good players and good teams. Those wins belong to those players.
“I told someone that I need (about) 30 more losses and I’ll have 500 of those, too. I had some good teams, a Presidents’ Trophy team,” added Ruff, who joined Jacques Lemaire and Joel Quenneville as the only head coaches to win 600 NHL games and skate in more than 650 NHL games as a player. “The guys went out and got me one tonight and we needed those two points to help us move up in the (wild card) standings, which is the most important thing.”
Chiasson, who had played an inspired game prior to his game-winner with a team-high six shots, stormed the net as Benn’s drive glanced off his leg and reached the back of the net midway through the third period for his first red light in 13 games. It was Dallas’s only power play goal in five chances.
“They’re going to start going in if I keep playing hard,” said Chiasson after netting his 10th goal and 3rd game-winner of the season. “I keep getting to my spots (on the ice) where it seems we’re successful. I thought that their goaltender played really well tonight. He made some great saves, not just on me but a lot of guys on the team. I think once (the goals) start going in hopefully I can stay hot (and) put a streak together.
“(We) knew a victory would be (Ruff’s) 600th win,” Chiasson added. “I think when you look at (Ruff’s) numbers, he’s been around (for awhile) and has been successful. We’re happy for him, and getting a win against his old team makes it a lot better.”
Despite outplaying and outshooting Buffalo 16-5 through the first 20 minutes, Dallas trailed 1-0. Defenseman Jordie Benn scored his 3rd of the season and first in 12 games to tie the score early in the second session when his long shot sailed through brother Jamie Benn’s screen and past Enroth.
Fellow blueliner Alex Goligoski’s 3rd goal gave Dallas a 2-1 lead with six seconds left in the middle period when he tapped in a goalmouth pass from Shawn Horcoff for his first red light in 48 games. It was also the first time since March 25, 2013 vs. Minnesota that the Stars had two defensemen score a goal in the same game.
Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis scored his 2nd goal of the game early in the third period to forge a 2-2 deadlock, but Lehtonen slammed the door to finish with 21 saves.
“I thought Kari made three real good saves in the last five minutes,” said Ruff after the Stars outshot Buffalo, 39-23 and benefited from the return of defenseman Brenden Dillon from a one-game absence. “We tried to score (an insurance goal) but we gave up a rush the other way. We needed a couple of big saves and we got them.”
Two days before, the Stars could not match Tampa Bay’s speed, dropping a 4-2 verdict on Saturday afternoon, March 1. Dallas outshot their visitors 41-21, but former Texas Tornado junior goalie Ben Bishop made 39 saves and held the Stars’ top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Valerie Nichkushkin without a point.
“We made a couple of mistakes with our execution early,” Ruff said of his team, which was without defenseman Brenden Dillon (lower body injury) and entered the game with an impressive 7-1-2 mark in its last 10 games. “You have to give them that first 10 minutes. I thought we needed to fight back from that first 10 minutes, and we did, and that’s the response I was looking for.”
“They started the way we wanted to start, their push was a lot more than ours, and I think that was the difference in the game,” defenseman Trevor Daley said. “Every team we’re playing against is going to be the same way. We’ve just got to find more energy than the team were playing against.”
The Stars, who allowed a goal less than 90 seconds into the game and trailed 3-0 against a team that had lost five of their last seven games, staged a furious comeback by outshooting Tampa Bay 18-7 in the 2nd period and closing the gap to 3-2 on goals by linemates Antoine Roussel (a tip in) and Vernon Fiddler (a wraparound) less than three minutes apart.
Roussel’s 10th goal of the year and his assist on Fiddler’s marker was his first multi-point game since he netted a pair of goals in a victory at Chicago on Dec. 10. Fiddler’s 4th goal and a helper on Roussel’s red light was his first multi-point performance since a Nov. 26 home ice victory over Anaheim.
“It wasn’t our best start,” said Fiddler, whose team outshot the Lightning 15-3 in the third period. “We can’t let that kind of thing happen. We’ve got to be in every game. We gave them a two-goal lead, and it was tough to come back.”
Lehtonen allowed a Lightning insurance goal just over seven minutes into the stanza, the first time in 12 games that he’s allowed as many as four markers in a match since a 4-3 loss to Colorado on Jan. 27.
“You look at the last games, and we had a lot of opportunities to put it in the back of the net, and it didn’t go,” said Ruff. “We’ve worked hard at it and we’ve fixed our entries, and we’re getting set up. It’s disappointing it didn’t make a difference for us, but we have to keep working on it.”
Ruff, a former NHL defenseman, was hit in the head with a puck while standing on the bench. Although the disc cut him between his eyebrows, Ruff merely wiped the blood off with a towel and didn’t seek treatment. “I was just slow with the right hand,” he chuckled. “I saw it coming but, I guess I’ll no longer be playing first base. I’ve been hit a lot harder. That was like a little smack of the puck. I’ve taken a few more than that one there, but really it wasn’t bad. Just a small cut and a little headache.”
Two nights earlier, the Stars emerged from the Olympic break just the way they’d entered it – with a well-played triumph at American Airlines Center. Jamie Benn scored a shorthanded goal and added two assists in a 4-1 victory over Carolina on Thursday, Feb. 27.
Dallas controlled the first 20 minutes against the ‘Canes – who had one post-break game under their belt, a 3-2 regulation loss at Buffalo 48 hours earlier – and took a 2-0 lead in the game’s first seven minutes on goals by Seguin and defenseman Dillon.
Seguin netted his team-high 25th goal by converting a nifty pass from Russia Olympic team member Nichushkin and one-timing it into the gaping net. Dillon doubled the lead during a Carolina power play with his 6th of the year, a 15-foot wrist shot that was set up by a pass from Jamie Benn, who also assisted on Seguin’s marker. It was Dillon’s 2nd shorthanded goal of the seven that Dallas has scored this year.
Benn got his 23rd of the year to make it 3-0 late in the 2nd period on a rush that began in his defensive zone and ended when he danced around a defenseman in the slot. Benn finished the play by pulling the puck to his forehand and slipping it between goalie Anton Khudobin and the left goalpost. It was the Stars’ second shorthanded goal of the game against a team that entered the contest having allowed only two shorties, 4th fewest in the NHL.
“The more you penalty kill, the more comfortable you are with it,” said Benn, who played on the penalty kill in helping Canada win its gold medal at the Winter Olympics. “I’ve got quite a bit of penalty-killing time lately and a lot more tonight, so I feel comfortable out there. I thought our group did a great job on the kill tonight and keep building off that.”
“Any time Jamie Benn is going up the ice, you’ve got to expect a goal,” Dillon said. “He just keeps proving every game and every day that he’s one of the best players in the world. I think after the Olympics everybody knows that. He just keeps getting better and better.”
Lehtonen, who finished with 29 saves and earned his 3rd straight victory, allowed his only goal early in the 3rd stanza on a goal line pass that slipped through him as the Hurricanes closed the count to 3-1. But the Stars survived a five minute man disadvantage caused by Roussel’s match penalty for colliding with Khudobin at the tail end of an explosive rush into the Carolina zone.
Center Cody Eakin cinched it for Dallas with his 13th into an empty net in the final minute.
“Kari gave us some real big, timely saves,” said Ruff, whose team allowed only 13 goals in its last 10 games. “(He didn’t have to make) a lot (of big saves) in the first forty (minutes) but …..I thought in the third there were a few more quality opportunities where they could have closed the gap on us but he shut the door.”
Ruff seemed very pleased with his team’s performance coming off the 19-day intermission to the season schedule. “I thought my (assistant) coaches (James Patrick and Curt Fraser) did a heck of a job getting the team ready. The practices just before I got back were very important. We skated well and we probably had upward of ten or eleven “A” chances and I thought their goalie made some very good saves.
“Getting off to a good start (coming out of the break) is very important,” Ruff added. “It’s been a long time (between games), and some guys are ready to play and some teams aren’t quite as sharp but I’d give our team an A+ rating on skating, execution, and the compete level. When we had to get down and block some shots we were right there in the trenches. The biggest thing is try to remain consistent. Put the wins away, enjoy this for a while (but) there isn’t a lot of time to spend on your previous game because your next one’s right there. Five minutes after I leave this podium, (the next game) becomes very important for us and this one is over.”
Stars’ Player of the Week – Jamie Benn
The team captain continued his torrid play on the heels of helping Team Canada capture the Gold Medal at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Jamie Benn registered a shorthanded goal and four assists, personally putting his stamp on the Stars’ two victories. His goal and two assists were instrumental in a 4-1 victory over visiting Carolina, and he set up the game-winner in a 3-2 triumph against visiting Buffalo. Benn is running closely behind the team’s leading scorer and linemate Tyler Seguin, trailing the former Bruin by two goals with 23 and two points with 56.