There are baby steps, and then there is the proverbial quantum leap.
Stars’ fans can only hope that their team took a major stride in learning how to score off its dominant play when their team ignited American Airlines Center Nov. 26 with a three-goals-in-53 seconds explosion that keyed a five-goal 3rd period eruption. The quintet of red lights gave Dallas a much-needed 6-3 come-from-behind victory over Pacific Division-leading Anaheim and ended a painful two-game losing streak despite the club’s ability to outplay both opponents for long stretches.
“We came out strong in the third period, (goalie Dan) Ellis made some big saves, and it’s very positive that we found a way to win,” said Stars’ defenseman Stephane Robidas, whose second goal in three games gave Dallas the lead for good in the middle of the three goal rally. “We didn’t play 60 minutes, but we found a way to win the game, and that’s big. We want to establish ourselves at home, take pride in playing well in front of our fans, so we made a statement tonight that we could do that. And it’s really big that we won this one going into the game against (visiting) Chicago this Friday night.”
The victory, which should fuel the ongoing confidence and development of the Stars as a bona fide playoff contender, was particularly gratifying after Dallas had surrendered the go-ahead goal with a half minute remaining in the middle stanza. The triumph also ended a four game home winless streak (0-2-2) dating back to a 5-1 victory over Calgary on Oct. 24. The Stars, who are now 4-3-2 at home and 12-9-2 overall, entered the Anaheim match having played the fewest home games in the league. They will play four of their next six games on the big ice in Big D.
“We were able to turn (things around), I can tell you a nice story now,” Head Coach Lindy Ruff said after the Stars literally took the game away from the visiting Ducks in front of an American Airlines Center crowd that went screaming joyously into the night. “A lot of it was just hard work, north-south, getting to the paint, getting in front of the goaltender.”
The Stars began the uprising by tying the score 2-2 when Cody Eakin one-timed a 15-foot wrist shot off a pass from linemate Erik Cole between Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller’s legs for his sixth of the year. As the crowd was just settling back into their seats, Dallas made it 3-2 when Robidas connected for his second marker in three games on a quick wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle off a pass from Rich Peverley for his fourth of the year just 25 seconds later.
For an exciting encore that will have fans talking for some time, forward Ryan Garbutt – just three years removed from having played in the East Coast Hockey League — made one of the most impressive hustle moves of the season just 18 seconds later. Garbutt skated from deep in his own offensive zone and outhustled Ducks’ defenseman Cam Fowler for a loose puck in front of the Anaheim goal before beating Hiller to make it 4-2. The three-goal eruption was the fastest in the NHL since Montreal scored three goals in 50 seconds in the third period of a 7-3 win over Winnipeg on Jan. 4, 2012.
“I didn’t realize how fast (the three goals were scored),” said Garbutt after netting his third goal of the year. “I’m not sure (the Anaheim defenseman) knew that I was right there with him. I honestly thought (Hiller) was going to come out and play the puck, but when he didn’t, I thought the puck skipped back to me. My eyes lit up when I saw the puck, and it was a big goal at that point in the game because it gave us a (two-goal) cushion to work with.
“Honestly I think we just started to get some bounces (because we were) going hard to the net,” Garbutt added. “Our line has been working so hard for a while now, and it’s so nice to get some chances like that.”
Garbutt, who also helped set up linemate Antoine Roussel for his second goal of the night and fourth of the season nearly six minutes later, finished with a goal and two helpers. “That line made the difference for us tonight,” Ruff said of the fourth line of Vern Fiddler, Garbutt, and Roussel. “I thought the way [Garbutt] played, the way (Fiddler) played and the way Roussel played, they were the spark, and you need that.”
Forward Alex Chiasson scored his seventh of the season into an empty net in the final minute to finish the scoring after the Ducks’ Dustin Penner had cut the lead to 5-3 with six and a half minutes remaining.
The Stars, who fell behind 1-0 midway through the first period and tied it on Roussel’s first goal of the night in the second, also benefitted from solid netminding from backup goalie Dan Ellis. Making his first start since Oct. 19, Ellis ended a run of 14 straight starts by Kari Lehtonen and made 28 stops to keep Dallas within striking distance of the Ducks.
Stars’ defenseman Sergei Gonchar played his 1,200th NHL game, joining Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Federov as the only Russian-born players to reach that mark. And 41- year-old forward Ray Whitney rejoined the lineup after he missed five games with a groin injury, playing in his 1,279th NHL game.
Prior to the victory over Anaheim, the Stars’ six-game road winning streak they had built on a pair of early- and mid-November treks in the Northeast and Western Canada came to an unceremonious end with a 6-1 loss in St. Louis on Saturday, Nov. 23. The Blues scored less than two minutes into the game, then just :09 after the Stars tied the score on a goal by defenseman Brenden Dillon, his fourth of the season. St. Louis netminder Brian Elliot made some key saves, particularly on breakaways when the game was still in doubt, finishing with 34 stops.
Ruff said the final score was extremely misleading, insisting that “for the most part we outskated them, and in a lot of areas we outworked them. We didn’t outsmart them, though. We made a couple of bad plays and good teams take advantage of (those). They made some bad ones and we didn’t (take advantage).”
Blues’ Coach Ken Hitchcock seemed to agree, and he lauded the Stars’ team speed, admitting that he felt his club struggled in that department. “You talk about Dallas’ speed, I thought we struggled to get up to the tempo,” said the former Stars’ bench boss. “They were on us pretty hard. I thought as the game wore on we moved up to the tempo of the game, started to counter-attack and get some scoring opportunities because of that. Once we started to hang onto the puck in the offensive zone, things started to go our way.”
Stars’ captain Jamie Benn said he thought his team started well in this game, taking a 12-4 shots on goal advantage into the first intermission but trailing by a goal. “I thought we outplayed them in the first, but we’ve got to bear down and capitalize on those chances,” he noted.
The Blues scored their six goals on 25 shots, the first five coming against Lehtonen, who was pulled with 15 minutes left in the game with Ellis finishing up.
Ruff felt that his team’s performances against the Blues and New York Rangers (a 3-2 home loss on Thursday, Nov. 21) “might have been two of our best skating games. You don’t come in here very often and outskate a Blues’ team. Overall, the game we played wasn’t a 6-1 game.
“For us to climb (in the standings), we have to win games like (those against the Blues and Rangers),” Ruff added. “We have to be able to play with them, and we have to find ways to win. There are areas where we have to get better.”
The Stars outplayed the Rangers on Thursday, Nov. 21 in stretches but several defensive breakdowns resulted in the puck hitting the back of their net. At the other end of the ice, Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist made 41 saves. Despite significantly outplaying the Rangers in both puck possession and a territorial edge in their zone, Dallas trailed 1-0 after 20 minutes. They tied the score 1-1 in the second period when Robidas scored his third goal by banking one in off a New York skater for the Stars’ first power play goal in eight home games this season (they had gone 0-for-26).
After the Rangers scored twice in 37 seconds before the third period was two minutes old to take a 3-1 lead, Chiasson netted his sixth of the year by converting a two-on-one feed from Eakin to make it 3-2. Just 12 seconds later, goalie Lehtonen made a save on Nash’s penalty shot to keep the Stars within striking distance.