Don’t look now, but the Dallas Stars are heading into the Olympic break in possession of a Western Conference Stanley Cup Playoff spot as one of the NHL’s hottest teams after claiming eight of a possible 10 points in their last five games and 14 of 18 potential points in their last nine.
The Stars won their Olympic sendoff contest, 2-1 over Phoenix at American Airlines Center on Saturday, Feb. 8 to supplant the Pacific Division’s Coyotes in 8th place – their 2nd triumph over former Stars’ coach Dave Tippett’s skaters in five days. Both teams are 27-21-10 for 64 points, and Dallas holds the tiebreaker with the two victories. The two squads finish the regular season in Arizona on Sunday, April 13.
The triumph and resultant euphoria over moving into a playoff spot completed a week in which the Stars claimed five of a possible six points with a 2-1 overtime loss in San Jose on Wednesday, Feb. 5, and a 3-1 victory in Phoenix on Tuesday, Feb. 4.
Forward Ray Whitney netted his 7th goal of the season just over two minutes into the game – giving the veteran seven points (four goals, three assist) in his last seven games against the Coyotes — to give Dallas a 1-0 lead. Whitney notched his 383rd career goal by skating from inside his blue line into the Phoenix zone along the left wing boards before cutting into the slot and beating Coyotes (and former Stars) goalie Mike Smith over his shoulder.
Valeri Nichushkin scored his 2nd goal in two games to make it 2-0 in the final minutes of the 2nd period. The rookie forward, who will play for host nation Russia at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, deflected home a point shot by defenseman Trevor Daley for his 13th goal of the year. Captain Jamie Benn, who will skate for Canada in Sochi, started the play with a nice pass from the corner out to Daley.
Finnish-born goalie Kari Lehtonen, who will also play in the Olympics, made 26 saves, including 12 in the 3rd period, and came within :16 of notching a shutout.
“Again, (Lehtonen) was rock solid,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff, who will be an assistant coach for Canada in Sochi. “He came up with some big saves, one when we were killing a penalty (with) a glove save, and another big stop on their breakaway when they were short-handed. The only thing I would like to have seen was for him to get the shutout.
“(This team) has come a long way, and you have to give the guys credit for digging in,” added Ruff, whose team outshot the Coyotes 33-27 and has not allowed more than 28 shots in any of their last 11 outings. “I thought if we got within three or four points at the break, we could be a serious contender. We’ve exceeded that. Those dark days of January we put behind us. (This has) been a good run for us.”
The Stars, who are hoping to participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time the Spring of 2008, probably wish the regular season would continue instead of shutting down for nearly three weeks.
“(All you can do is) talk to your players and remind them how hard it was to get to this point,” said Ruff, who said he addressed each individual player of the team’s need to play a quick-paced style and to be sharp in facets of the game. “They have to come out of the break (Feb. 27 against Carolina at American Airlines Center) and be one of the better teams. You’ve got about a week’s window there where you have two or three games where you’re guessing at (which players) you’re going to get (whose teams have finished play at the Olympics). We have five practice days and we’ll try to get the team ready. Our group is pretty committed.”
On Wednesday night in San Jose, the Stars moved to within a point of the final Western Conference playoff spot with a big defensive effort in the 3rd period of their 2-1 overtime loss against at San Jose
Dallas finished their three-game season series with one victory and two overtime losses against the Sharks, earning four of a possible six points.
Goalie Lehtonen made 19 saves against the NHL’s leader in shots per game (35.0, Nichushkin netted his 12th goal of the season by one-timing a feed from Daley to tie the score 1-1 early in the 3rd period, and Dallas proceeded to hold the hungry Sharks to just two shots in the session, both in the last five minutes of regulation.
“It was a good point,” Ruff said after the Stars held San Jose to 21 shots for the game. “(This was the 2nd night of) back-to-back games, we fell behind (late in the second period), and I thought we played a real good third period. We would’ve liked to have gotten out with the extra point, but you take a look at the road trip (two wins and an overtime loss), getting five out of six points and playing the way we did, you’ve got to be happy.
“(However, the sudden death overtime period is) an area we have to improve in,” Ruff added after the Stars lost for the sixth time in games decided during the five-minute overtime period this season. “We lost coverage on the (winning) goal and they made us pay for it.”
The Stars, who flew into San Jose immediately after their victory at Phoenix the previous evening, played inspired hockey against a San Jose team that was hungry for a victory after going 1-4-0 in its previous five games.
“It was a really good game,’’ said defenseman Jordie Benn (Jamie’s older brother). “When you come into this building, it’s always going to be a tough night, especially on a back-to-back. So we just wanted to come in here and keep things pretty simple, work hard and I guess we stole one point.”
The Stars defeated host Phoenix, 3-1 on Feb. 4 in their first game of the season against the Coyotes. Dallas outshot their hosts 40-28 and rallied from a 1-0 deficit after a less than acceptable opening 20 minutes.
“That first period, it was a little sloppy on both sides,” said Ruff. “We made some big mistakes and we got some big saves (from Lehtonen, who finished with 27 stops). I just thought that it was pretty disjointed play. In the second and third, we really kind of turned the corner.”
Veteran forward Shawn Horcoff tied the game midway through the 2nd period at 1-1 when he slid home a backhander from the slot for his 7th goal of the season. Antoine Roussel got the game-winner early in the 3rd session by snapping a wrister from the slot past Coyotes’ goalie Smith for his 9th of the season.
“We knew this was one of the biggest games of the year,” said Roussel after scoring his first goal in 19 games. “We didn’t start the way we wanted, but the third period was really good for us and we got the win. I felt like the last 10 minutes, we locked them down. We didn’t give them much. We gave a couple chances still, but we tried to limit their chances and that worked well for us. (The last few games) we’ve been wearing the other team down with our speed and tenacity. That’s what keeps us in the game every night and that’s what helped us win tonight.”
Forward Ryan Garbutt, who set up Rousell’s game-winner, added an empty net marker for his 11th red light in the final half minute for insurance.
“I think we’ve just been playing hard every night, using our speed,” said Garbutt. “Everybody’s been playing to the best of their abilities and having fun at the same time. Defensively, we’ve been playing well lately. It’s just (a matter of) working hard in your end. I think the guys are coming to play every night. It’s fun to be a part of this (when) you’re in those close games and you have a goalie like Kari Lehtonen in net.”
Stars’ Player of the Week – Valeri Nichushkin
The last time we selected Valeri Nichushkin as the Stars’ Player of the Week, he earned the honor despite three straight Dallas losses to open the new year. A lot has since happened to the 18-year old sniper from Chelyabinsk, Russia, Drafted by Dallas with the 10th selection of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Valeri’s play dipped and Coach Lindy Ruff did not dress him for games at Minnesota and Nashville January 18 and 20. The youngster suddenly rediscovered the effective play that earned him a spot on Team Russia in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. This past week, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Nichushkin helped Dallas earn three big points to move into a playoff spot by scoring the team’s only goal in a 2-1 overtime loss at San Jose, and added the eventual game-winner in a 2-1 victory over Phoenix.