The Dallas Stars were staring into the abyss of another year – their sixth straight – of inactivity during the Stanley Cup playoffs midway through their Saturday, March 22 afternoon game against Ottawa at American Airlines Center. Trailing 1-0 late in the 2nd period, sitting four points out of the 8th and final post-season berth and coming off four straight losses(three in regulation), coach Lindy Ruff’s skaters somehow summoned the desire and talent to come from behind and upend the Senators, 3-1.
The victory, coming on the heels of a 4-2 loss at Philadephia on Thursday, March 20, took on added importance hours later when 8th place Phoenix lost to visiting Boston.
Dallas, which ended the week at 33-26-11 for 77 points, had leaped back into the Western Conference playoff race just two behind the Coyotes. The Stars also captured all four points in their two games against the Atlantic Division’s Senators, including a 4-3 overtime win on Nov. 3.
“It was a great test for our team,” Ruff said after forward Cody Eakin tied the game in the 2nd period and defenseman Trevor Daley and center Jamie Benn added 3rd period markers. “This is just playoff hockey now the rest of the way. You’re going to have to have the ability to come back. You’re going to have to have the ability to lead the game by a goal late and hold that lead. You’re going to need some big saves at crucial times
The Stars received a stellar performance from goalie Kari Lehtonen, who made 26 saves in just his 2nd start since suffering a concussion on March 8 against Minnesota.
“I’m going to treat him as absolutely normal,” said Ruff. “He’s been back for two games and had a good practice in between them. It’s full-go right now. It looked to me like he was locked-in today. He was focused and didn’t pay a lot of attention to a couple of bumps and there are going to be a lot of bumps along the way. It’s desperation now as people go to the net hard. There are going to be people falling into you and taking you out but it’s going to be his job to battle through that.”
Dallas won this game by returning to its outstanding puck possession – something that had was strangely missing in its most recent games – and outshot Ottawa, 44-27.
“(Our improved play) was huge; we needed it confidence- and standings-wise,” said Eakin, who netted his 14th goal of the season and tied the score, 1-1 by knocking home a rebound of Valeri Nichushkin’s shot during a 4-on-4 rush. “(Wins) are fun games. We’ve been on the losing side of a few games in the past week, and it was a good opportunity for us to play the way we wanted to. It’s been too long for me (since Jan. 23 without a goal). It’s nice to be able to chip in for the team and relieve that top line.”
Defenseman Daley gave the Stars the lead for good less than five minutes into period three with his 6th goal off a pass from forward Ray Whitney immediately following a brief power play. Daley now has four points in his last five games and two game-winning goals for the season.
Benn converted a Tyler Seguin feed for his career-high 30th of the season and third in two games just over two minutes later to give Dallas a two-goal cushion. The marker, combined with Tyler Seguin’s 31 red lights, marks the first time that two Stars players have 30-plus goals in a season since Jason Arnott and Jere Lehtinen scored 32 and 33, respectively during the 2005-06 campaign.
In addition to their puck possession, the Stars’ return to the win column was created by a more balanced attack and their persistence in overcoming frustration and rushing the Ottawa net.
“I think the (Eakin) goal was an indication of that,” Ruff said. “We had more plays around the front of the net and more people there. We didn’t get pushed outside as a team. I thought we were determined to get inside and create some of those scrambles that are pretty chaotic. I thought (Nichushkin) did a terrific job of taking it to the net and (Eakin) hung around and found the loose puck laying there. We had more plays around the front of the net and more people there. We didn’t get pushed outside as a team, I thought we were determined to get inside and create some of those scrambles that are pretty chaotic.
“Our team has answered almost every call this year from the tough stretch we went through in January to this little bit of a tough stretch,” Ruff added. “We’ve just got to stay with it and get rewarded for that.”
Stars Lose in Philly
Despite a significantly better performance than in their previous two games (at Winnipeg and Pittsburgh), the Stars losing streak reached three with a 4-2 loss in Philadelphia. The Stars outshot their hosts 35-29 and actually outplayed the Flyers for much of the final 40 minutes, but could solve opposing netminder Steve Mason only two times.
Dallas finished its two-game season series against the Eastern Division’s Flyers by capturing two of a possible four points with its 5-1 victory powered by Seguin’s three-goal Hat Trick back on Saturday, Dec. 7.
Jamie Benn scored both Dallas goals. His 28th marker of the season midway through the 2nd period marker was the culmination of sustained 5-on-3 pressure on the Flyer goal, cut Philly’s lead to 2-1 and snapped its streak of 20 consecutive successful penalty kills. The Stars’ captain added his 29th of the year halfway through the 3rd stanza when he adeptly tapped the puck home after Mason allowed a shot to bounce off the end boards and roll into his crease, cutting the Flyer lead to 3-2.
But goaltender Tim Thomas – who entered the game with a 14-4-2 won-loss-OT loss mark and a 2.21 lifetime goals against average vs. Philly when he played for Boston and Florida – was beaten on a Michael Raffl backhanded goal off a semi-breakaway with less than four minutes to play. Thomas was not happy with two of the goals he allowed, particularly a wrister by Wayne Simmonds from the top of the right wing faceoff circle midway through the 3rd period that restored the Flyer lead to 3-1.
“It hit the seven-hole (the space between the glove-side arm and body) on me,” said Thomas, who was acquired from the Panthers at the trade deadline. “That’s a save that I should make. The team really needed it at that time. I really feel bad for the guys with the game that they played. Sometimes that’s hockey, but I can guarantee you I’m going to be better for the guys moving forward from here on out.”
Dallas finished its three-game road trip without a point and was outscored by a combined 16-5 margin, but played their best hockey during the three game road swing in the City of Brotherly Love.
“We didn’t give up a lot in the game,” said Ruff. “We gave up four goals but we didn’t give up four goals on a lot of opportunities or a lot of zone time. I thought our puck movement was good. We had a breakaway, we didn’t score, they had one and they did score. The margin of victory in the game, it could have went either way, real fast.
“It’s tough (to lose a game like this,” Ruff added. I thought the team played hard. We missed some point-blank opportunities, and there are probably a couple our goaltender would like (to have) back. If we play like that night after night, we will win.”
“We played pretty well tonight,” added Stars defenseman Brenden Dillon. “We had a couple of shots their goaltender made some great saves on. Philadelphia is a great team; they’re one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now. They’ve been rolling. They just beat Pittsburgh and Chicago in their last three games. We’ve got to take the positives out of this because we play again Saturday afternoon. We’ve just got to get back to playing our game, and I think tonight was a step in the right direction.”
Dallas Stars Player of the Week – Jamie Benn
Benn earned the honor with a two-goal performance in a loss at Philadelphia, and the insurance goal in a 3-1 victory over Ottawa that ended a four-game losing streak. The latter marker gave the team captain a career-high 30 red lights, and gives the Stars two 30-plus goal scorers in the same season for the first time since 2005-06 Jason Arnott and Jere Lehtinen scored 32 and 33, respectively.