Stars Glitter on Home Ice

The Stars weren’t just shining brightly – they were absolutely glittering – in the afterglow of three straight dominant home ice victories by a combined score of 14-1 during which Dallas never trailed to close out a week that began with a lackluster loss in Nashville. As a result, coach Lindy Ruff’s skaters improved to 24-20-8 for 56 points, just five behind 8th place Vancouver in the Western Conference wild card standings.

Goalie Kari Lehtonen and his teammates whitewashed Minnesota, 4-0 on Tuesday, Jan. 21 and high flying Pittsburgh, 3-0 on Saturday, Jan. 25, sandwiching those triumphs around a 7-1 rout that ended Toronto’s six-game winning streak on Thursday, Jan. 23. The victories, which opened a five-game homestand, enabled Dallas to forget its 4-1 loss to the Predators on Monday, Jan. 20.

“This (victory) is up there (among the Stars’ best efforts of the season),” Lehtonen said after recording his 25th career shutout and 2nd in three games. By stopping all 24 shots he faced (12 of them in the 3rd period when Pittsburgh made a frenzied comeback attempt). “(The Penguins are) really good. We were able to play a lot better than them. We dominated the power play and the penalty kill. Overall, it was a great effort.”

“With the team in front of him for the first 40 minutes, you couldn’t find more than one or two good chances,” said Ruff. “In the third period when he really needed (to make saves), he stood tall. He just eliminated their chances. He came up big at the right time.”

Dallas controlled play through the first 40 minutes, standing up at the blue line against the high flying Penguins forwards and dominating the neutral zone by avoiding turnovers, maintaining puck possession and consistently forcing play back toward the Pittsburgh defensive zone.

They also frustrated the Pens’ marquee offensive players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and former Star James Neal with excellent back checking and enough physical play to outmuscle Pittsburgh and keep them away from Lehtonen. Their penalty kill stifled the Penguins’ vaunted power play four times, and has not allowed a goal in its last 15 shorthanded situations.

“We’re real dedicated, all five guys (on the ice),” said Stars’ defenseman Alex Goligoski, a former Penguin. “We’ve got a lot of guys blocking shots and playing defense, and it’s fun to see. It gets the bench going and kind of makes you play on your toes and feed the offense, too.”

Speaking of the offense, the Stars’ power play clicked twice, netting a man advantage marker for the seventh straight game (which tied a franchise mark established from December 11 to 23 during the 2010-2011 campaign) after having lagged near the bottom of the NHL for most of the campaign.

Veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar’s slap shot through traffic late in the opening period gave the Stars a 1-0 lead and enabled them to continue their territorial dominance over the visitors. The goal – which started with a Lehtonen touch for the netminder’s league-leading 4th assist (among goalies) of the season and 2nd in two games — was Gonchar’s 2nd of the year.

Captain Jamie Benn added another man advantage goal, his 19th when he one-timed a pass from Goligoski early in the 2nd period. The two power-play goals victimized Pittsburgh’s league-leading unit, which entered the game with a streak of 11 successful penalty kills.

Forward Rich Peverly netted his 7th of the season and 2nd in two games by solving solved Pens’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury midway through the 2nd period to finish the night’s scoring.

“This is desperation (for the Stars) — we saw that in their last two games. We saw it again tonight,” Metropolitan Division-leading Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said after the Stars committed just two giveaways compared with nine by the Pens. “This was a desperate team that’s played hard. We have to be able to match that regardless of where our position is or what the standings look like.”

“We’ve been locked into our energy, our game, and we spend more time in the offensive zone,’’ Ruff said. “It’s been a total team effort. The last three games have all been excellent in all three zones. This one against a highly skilled team and taking care of special teams probably knocks the other two (previous victories) down a little bit.”

Anyone who saw the 7-1 victory over Toronto might beg to differ with the coach. For the 2nd consecutive game, Dallas controlled the flow of play while commandeering a territorial and physical advantage over their opponent. Benn opened the scoring with his 100th career goal and 18th of the season midway through the first period and center Cody Eakin added his 12th later in the stanza to put the Stars ahead for good at 2-1.

“I guess (the scoring opportunities) going in the net now,” said the 24-year old Benn, who became the first skater in franchise history to record his 100th career red light before his 25th birthday. “That’s what’s working. (We’re getting) a little bit of confidence (because) we feel comfortable out there. They just weren’t going in the first half of the year. I just think we’re shooting pucks and doing the right things now.”

Rookie forward Valeri Nichushkin, who was benched for two games prior to the homestand, broke out of his goal scoring slump with a pair of markers over the final two periods. He touched off a four-goal uprising in the middle period with his 10th of the year on a tip in early in the second period that gave Dallas a 3-1 lead and chased Toronto’s starting goalie, Jonathan Bernier. He added his 11th in the 3rd period on a rebound that victimized James Reimer and finished the night’s scoring.

“It’s funny how that works,” Ruff said. “He got one off his skate when he was in the right spot, and he got a rebound when he was right in front. He has had some nice opportunities for him that haven’t gone in.”

Shawn Horcoff (on a power play) and Peverley (shorthanded) each added his 6th goal of the season and defenseman Trevor Daley netted his 3rd to give Dallas a commanding 6-1 lead after 40 minutes.

“I think we’ve done a great job in the neutral zone and a great job off the rush,” said Daley after goalie Lehtonen made 24 saves to notch his 200th career victory. “We’re not back on our heels and having to dump pucks in and change and having them coming at us, it’s vice versa. It’s them dumping pucks on us and us getting some zone time down there and putting them on their heels.”

Added Benn, “Something we wanted to do this game is build off (the victory over Minnesota). That’s two good games together in a row. We were pretty good in all three zones, limited our turnovers and were successful because of it. I think we just have found our confidence again. We know how we have to play to win hockey games and you’ve seen that the last two game.”

The Stars began their dominating play at American Airlines Center with the 4-0 victory over the Wild (which had defeated them, 3-2 in overtime three nights earlier). Ending a three-game losing skid, Goalie Lehtonen made 18 saves to earn his 2nd shutout of the year.

On the attack, forwards Erik Cole and Ray Whitney contributed power play goals to mark the first time this season that Dallas has netted multiple power play goals in a game at the AAC.

“They were better than we were all around,” Minnesota forward Jason Pominville said. “We were undisciplined. Their power play was good. Ours wasn’t that good. They brought more energy, kind of frustrated us a little bit in not giving us time and space. We weren’t able to generate enough quality scoring chances to win a game.”

Center Vernon Fiddler opened the scoring in the 1st period with his 3rd of the season, ending a 27-game goal scoring drought dating back to his penalty shot marker on Nov. 5 at Boston. Cole made it 2-0 later in the session with his 15th of the year and 3rd in his last five games. Whitney added his 6th of the campaign with the man advantage midway through the second period to increase the Dallas lead to 3-0.

For an encore, defenseman Jordie Benn – the older brother of team captain Jamie Benn – closed the scoring with a penalty shot goal on a sleek backhand maneuver in the final session.

“I did that exact move, and it worked,” said Benn, who notched the Stars’ 4th penalty shot of the season in seven attempts, which ties the NHL record for most one-on-one attempts in a single season shared by several teams. “That’s the only move I have, the only one I’ve ever tried (in the minors), and it worked again.”

“I think that’s a move Jordie should teach Jamie — I’m serious,” said Ruff. “That was a solid pump fake. (Seriously), on all levels, we finally got rewarded. I thought we stuck with it, and in a back-to-back situation the guys summoned up a really good effort.

“We didn’t make the big individual mistakes, which was a big deal,” added Ruff. “Tonight I can point to maybe one or two plays that weren’t good. We turned it over once in the first period, but we got it back.”

The loss in Nashville was created in part by Stars’ defensive breakdowns and the 15th goal they’ve allowed in the final minute of a period this season.

“It’s tough, because it isn’t the same guy doing it every night, it’s a different guy,” Ruff said. “Unfortunately tonight, it was a couple of our top guys. It’s not like we’re making the opposition earn the opportunities. We’re handing them some beauties.”

“I’ll take the blame,” team captain Jamie Benn in reference to his team’s defensive lapses that led to their 9th loss in 10 games. “I had three (turnovers) in the first period and they scored on two of them. And when your leader and your captain is doing that, it’s unacceptable, and I’ve definitely got to clean it up.”

The Stars actually took a 1-0 lead in this one when Eakin netted his 11th of the season on a power play less than five minutes after the opening faceoff.

Nashville rebounded quickly and scored twice within a six-minute span to take a 2-1 lead after one period. The Predators were the recipients of breakdowns by the Dallas forwards and defensemen. The Stars never really appeared to be in the midst of a battle to reacquire control of the match, and the home team added goals in the 2nd and 3rd periods against Lehtonen, who finished with 19 saves.

Added Ruff, “I thought we were more a team that got afraid to lose. I thought for a period of time in the second period we were just trying to hang around. It’s really hard, but we’ve got to stick together through this. We’ve got to battle this together, we’ve got to be a little bit more resilient, it’s got to harden us…we’ve got to come out of this a better team. But it’s hard, it’s a serious gut check and you really have to hunker down and trust your teammates.”

Stars’ Player of the Week – Jamie Benn

The Stars’ team captain began the week by taking responsibility for defensive lapses in a loss in Nashville, and ended it with a goal and three assists in a 7-1 victory over Toronto and an insurance goal in Dallas’s 3-0 win over the Penguins. His goal against Toronto made the 24-year old emerging superstar the first player in franchise history to notch 100 career goals before the age of 25. In addition to finishing with six points for the week, he watched older brother Jamie Benn score on a penalty shot to finish out a 4-0 triumph over the Wild. Drafted by Dallas in the 5th round (129th overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Jamie ranks 2nd in team scoring with 46 points and is a cinch to eclipse his previous career high of 26 goals that he scored during the 2011-12 NHL season.

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