The Dallas Stars put their Western Conference post-season foes on notice Saturday night, rallying for a 3-2 victory over Nashville to capture the Central Division and conference championships and erase memories of their failure to reach last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Trailing 2-0 to the Predators in the regular season finale for both squads at American Airlines Center, the Stars rode forward Jason Spezza’s three-goal Hat Trick to their 50th victory. Spezza added a touch of drams by potting the game-winner with 1:00 left in regulation to record the Stars’ ninth win in their last 11 regular season games and send the crowd into a playoff-like celebration.
“(Spezza) did a great job of coming out, shooting the puck and driving the middle of the ice,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “The last goal, and the other even-strength goal were both (scored as a result of his) driving down the middle of the ice. He’s got a tremendous shot when his feet are moving.
“(Jason has) had a heck of a year,” added Ruff. “When you look at his numbers (33 goals, 63 points), that’s a big year and this was a big game for him to score three tonight and help us clinch. We didn’t have to look for help, we ended up winning it ourselves. We’ve got to tip the cap to him for sure”
Spezza adds tremendous scoring depth to a Dallas squad that features captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Patrick Sharp. He returned to the lineup after missing the previous game with an illness and absolutely inspired his team, willing it to a come-from-behind victory that indicates the Stars have the talent and the mindset to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup.
“I felt a little better than I thought I’d feel (after the illness),” said Spezza, whose second goal that tied the score 2-2 was the 300th of his NHL career. “It’d been a long 24 hours for me and then that probably helped me to get the rest and not have to play that game because it would have been tough on the body.
“It’s nice to (win the game tonight), but we’ve got a lot of work and the work just starts now,” Spezza added. “We’ve known we were going to be in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter who you play in the first round, it’s going to be a tough matchup (against the 8th seed Minnesota Wild). We wanted to win the game just to finish the job we (started with our great season, because) you kind of raise syour tandards and try to win the division. You always want to be playing good hockey going into the playoffs.”
Spezza quickly looked back over a season in which Dallas improved 17 points over last season’s squad while amassing the fourth highest point total (109) in team history and reaching the 50-win mark for the first time since 2005-06 and the fourth time ever. The Stars (50-23-9) won their first division title since 2005-06 and finished first in the West for the first time since 2002-03.
“We got off to a much better start (this season),” Spezza noted. “We committed ourselves to defense, our special teams ware better, and our goaltenders (Antti Niemi finished with a 25-13-7 record, three shutouts and a 2.67 goals against average, and Kari Lehtonen was 25-10-2 with two shutouts and a 2.78 goals against average) carried us. As a team, we’re more mature with not having long losing streaks and not getting too high throughout the season. We had some good winning streaks.
“Overall, (we had a lot of) maturity,” Spezza added. “I think our record was worse that it should have been (in 2014-15). We had some misfortune in a lot of games and probably deserved a better fate, but our overall maturity and the fact that the group stayed together and some of the additions we made helped that.”
Stars’ coach Lindy Ruff felt that winning the Western Conference championship was a tremendous accomplishment. “Go back to Day One of camp and the buy-in to fix what went wrong and approach the game a little bit different,” he said. “Our leadership group with Jamie (Benn), Jason (Spezza), Alex (Goligoski) and Fids (Vernon Fiddler)…did a tremendous job to get us to this point. I know there weren’t a lot of people who picked us to be there. To be honest, I didn’t think we could get there ourselves but as the year went on I thought we had a chance.”
Ruff noted that his players’ on ice efforts away from the puck were a key difference that elevated their play compared to that of last season. “We had a bad month (January) but I think we regrouped from that and this last 10-to-12 games our goals-against went down and the wins went up. I think that’s been the biggest difference overall. (We stayed away from) giving up high-quality chances at inopportune times of the game.
“We’re sitting on top (of the Western Conference) for one reason…we played well enough to get here,” Ruff went on. “If you look at our record in the last ten games and in the first 40, I think there was only one team that didn’t have a tough stretch and that was Washington. We rebounded from a tough stretch and put together, what I would call, a good last couple of months. To finish on top in this division is extremely tough when you’re going against St Louis and Chicago and the likes of the teams that we have to go against, and play that number of games against them. Then inside the conference you’ve got the (Los Angeles) Kings and the (Anaheim) Ducks. There’re a lot of good teams and we have to play the majority of our games against (Central Division opponents) and that was a focus to improve that record. We did improve the record and we got rewarded for it.”
The Stars ensured they would enjoy the home ice advantage throughout the playoffs against every team except the Capitals (120 points). The club significantly improved their performance on AAC ice, with 28 home wins, second-best in franchise history (behind the 1998-99 Stanley Cup team that won 29). Their 58 home ice points (28-11-2) are tied for fifth most in team history.
“Our fans have been tremendous,” Ruff said in response to a question about home ice. “We had a lot of disappointment last year with our home record and that’s another area that we really turned around. I think having the building full every night…even tonight when we got that first goal, the building was alive again and that energy helped us win a game. Our fans have been tremendous all year long and they’re going to be a big part of things going forward. If you have to play a deciding game, and you can play it at home, they can be the extra man for us.
“We’re facing a Minnesota team (87 points) that has a forward group that goes to the net really hard,” Ruff added. “(Offensively), it’s going to be (challenging) to get inside and (challenging) to get those second opportunities on their goaltender who’s a big man. If he gets squared up to the puck, he’s hard to beat. We’re going to have to make sure we have traffic and work off his backside and make some good plays against him.”
Captain Benn, the defending Art Ross Trophy winner as the NHL’s leading scorer in 2014-15, finished second to Chicago’s Patrick Kane (106 points) and earned the Mike Modano Award as Dallas’s leading point producer (80, including a team high 41 goals) for 2915-16.
Seguin, who has been out with an injury suffered on March 17 and will be ready to return in the opening round, finished with 33 goals and 63 points. Spezza’s 63 points ranked third, while defenseman John Klingberg added 58 points (10 goals). Forward Patrick Sharp, who with Kane led Chicago to a Stanley Cup last season, rounded out the Stars’ top five with 55 points (20 goals).
Spezza admitted that he is very excited about returning to the post-season in a Stars’ uniform. “I’m excited. We’ve got a legitimate team with a legitimate chance, and it’s a fun group,” he said. “We want to keep playing as long as we can together. This is why you play. You start getting longer into your career and realize the chances don’t come all the time, and we’ve got a good chance. You just chip away at it and start with Game One. The intensity is going to ramp up. The games are going to get tighter. The first few games are always a little bit sloppy. We just have to be prepared for everything.”
Ruff was unsure whether Seguin would return (from his March 17 injury) for Game One of the Wild series. “I hate to try to answer that today,” he responded. “I might (be able to) answer that after Monday or Tuesday. He’s progressing and doing pretty well. I know it’s tough to step in and I was worried tonight about putting in three players that hadn’t played. We started a little slow, I think, because of that but we needed to get some playing time out of a few guys. It will be an easier question to answer on Monday or Tuesday.”
Games One and Two of the best-of-seven series will open in Dallas beginning at 8:30 p.m. (CDT) and 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, respectively. The series shifts to Minnesota for Games Three and Four Monday, April 18 and Wednesday, April 20 beginning at 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., respectively.
If necessary, Game Five will be in Dallas on Friday, April 22, with the opening puck drop to be announced. Game six will be Sunday, April 25 TBA, and Game Seven will be back in Dallas Tuesday, April 26 TBA.