With only 10 regular season games remaining, the Stars realize they must make their move now if they are to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 NHL season.
The Stars split a pair of games early this week, defeating Winnipeg 2-1 on Monday night, March 24 before losing 4-2 at Chicago 24 hours later. The split enabled Dallas to remain within striking distance of 8th place Phoenix (35-26-12 for 82 points), which currently owns the regulation/overtime win (ROW) tiebreaker, 47-45.
Skating in its 2nd game in two nights against a team that had rested the previous day, Dallas (34-27-11 for 79 points) seemed outmanned by the ‘Hawks and fell three points behind the Coyotes, who had won 3-2 in Pittsburgh earlier in the evening.
The Stars finished their five-game season series against the Central Division’s Blackhawks by capturing just three of a possible 10 points, including a 4-3 victory in Chicago, plus 5-2 and 6-2 losses and a 2-1 overtime setback in Dallas.
Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen made his third straight start and kept the Stars in the game with 38 saves against a Chicago squad that outshot their visitors, 41-27.
“I thought he played very well for us,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said of his goalie. “I think it’s a real good sign. It was a busy game for him, probably his busiest game in a long time. He faced over 40 shots, and there were multiple opportunities where the goalie’s got to be moving.”
Despite missing star forward Patrick Kane — who is on long-term injured reserve – Chicago took a 2-0 lead with goals late in the 1st period and early in the 2nd session.
“(The Stars are) a hungry team,” Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives. We came out with a pretty good start and were able to get one on the power play that was nice to get us jump-started.
Stars’ Forward Ryan Garbutt brought Dallas to within 2-1 with his 13th goal of the season midway through the 2nd period, beating Chicago goalie Corey Crawford with a backhander between his pads on his second breakaway and backhanded attempt of the night.
The play was created by a pass that forward Tyler Seguin had adeptly caromed off the boards from the Stars’ defensive zone. The assist extended Seguin’s current point streak (during which he’s contributed 10 goals and seven assists) to a career-best 10 games, which is tied for the longest active streak in the NHL with Tampa Bay’s Valtteri Filppula. Seguin leads the Stars in goals (32), assists (43) and points (75) – all career highs.
After Chicago regained its two-goal lead, 3-1 with a red light late in the middle session, Garbutt tallied his second of the night and 14th of the season with 5:40 remaining in the 3rd period by deflecting a shot from behind the net off of netminder Crawford’s leg. But the Blackhawks scored into an empty net in the final half-minute of regulation to seal the victory.
“You have to play a full 60 minutes consistently, the right way,” Stars team captain Jamie Benn said. “We have three more of these back-to-backs. They’re not easy games to play. The last 10 (games) we have aren’t going to be easy. We’re going to have to find a way to stick together and try to get as many points as we can.”
Lehtonen Leads Stars to Victory over Winnipeg
Stars’ Goalie Lehtonen was the difference with 32 saves to preserve a crucial 2-1 victory over Winnipeg at American Airlines Center on Monday, March 24.
“My teammates were good (in front of me, (especially) when there were rebounds,” said Lehtonen, whose outstanding goaltending gave Dallas its 2nd straight victory. “They usually were able to get to them. It was just a solid team effort. The first two periods were very good.”
“Kari was excellent,” said Ruff. “His saves were great and his puck handling really helped us. He made some good passes. That part of his game was excellent.”
Dallas finished its four-game season series against the Central Division’s Jets by capturing six of a possible eight points, including 4-1 and 6-4 victories and a 7-2 setback on March 16.
The Stars scored both their goals on the power play. Veteran Ray Whitney gave Dallas a 1-0 lead less than six minutes into the 1st period with his eighth of the season, a slap shot from the top of the left faceoff circle that beat Jets goalie Al Montoya on the near side.
Seguin potted the eventual game-winner, connecting for his 32nd goal with less than four minutes to play in the 2nd period when he persisted in digging the puck out of a goalmouth scrum and slipped it past a prone Montoya.
“I was a little concerned that we missed some great opportunities in the first period,” said Ruff, whose penalty killers survived two of three Jets man advantage situations. “When you get those opportunities you can really get a team down. (Forward) Alex Chiasson had (a chance) late in the period and we missed that; those are opportunities that you’d like to capitalize on. But I thought we stayed with it. We played sound defensively. We had a few breakdowns but special teams won us a game.”
Winnipeg cut the lead to 2-1 on a power play with 2:44 remaining, but Dallas denied the Jets in the waning minutes by standing up at the blue line and refusing to let them cycle down low to create a game-tying shot.
“In the third period I thought we sat back a little bit and played prevent defense for most of it,” said Whitney. “In these situations as the games get tighter down the stretch, you’re going to see that type of play from everybody who is really desperate for points. We have to learn from it so we don’t have to rely as heavily on Kari like we did tonight in the third period.”
Dallas Stars Player of the Week – Kari Lehtonen
The Dallas goalie has fully recovered from a concussion he suffered against Minnesota on March 8 with two victories over Ottawa and Winnipeg, and turning aside 70 shots in the victory over Winnipeg (32) and a loss in Chicago (38) and an outstanding performance during the 4-2 loss to Chicago. Lehtonen’s continued standout play in the Dallas crease bodes well for a team that has playoff aspirations.