As you peruse this, odds are that many Dallas Stars fans’ hearts are still pounding in their chests. That’s what happens when your team comes within a fraction of an inch of surrendering a four-goal lead and needing sudden death overtime to close out a series.
Dallas won its first playoff series since 2008, four games to two over Minnesota with a 5-4 heart-stopping triumph in Game Six of their opening round playoff series at Xcel Energy Center on April 24. They move on to the Western Conference semifinals beginning Thursday night against the winner of the April 25 Game Seven showdown between Chicago and St. Louis.
Many Dallas hockey fans and the Wild thought the home team had tied the score with :34 left in regulation when forward Nino Niederreiter took a whack at a loose puck in the crease beneath Stars’ goalie Kari Lehtonen. Nearly all but a fraction of the frozen rubber had crossed the goal line.
Freeze-frame replays showed the puck had entered the net, but had not fully crossed the goal line as Lehtonen got his right pad on the rubber. The referee’s on ice call was upheld by the videotape review.
The Western Conference and Central Division champion Stars (109 points), who amassed the second best point total behind Eastern Conference champ Washington (120), had finally outlasted the eight seeded Wild (87).
“It’s been a long process, and this (series victory) is just the first step,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “It’s not going to be easy. Any time a team (the Wild) has their lives on the line, you’re going to see their desperation.”
The Stars, who have scored an NHL-best 522 goals over the last two regular seasons, erupted for three red lights in the first period. Captain Benn’s marker in the final minute of the middle period gave them a 4-0 lead entering the third.
The Wild, who spent much of the series furiously rallying from a deficit, scored three goals in a 4:50 span, trailing 4-3 with more than 11 minutes left in regulation. After Dallas defenseman Alex Goligoski tallied a few minutes later to give his team a 5-3 cushion, the Wild closed to within a goal with just under five minutes left.
“We have to learn to be better in the third (period), but I know we have never been pressured like that by another team,” said center Jason Spezza, who scored his fourth goal of the series and added three assists. “They were fighting for their lives, and we felt it. It was real. They were throwing five guys at us, everything but the kitchen sink, and we found a way to survive.”
Dallas forward Patrick Sharp and defenseman John Klingberg also scored for Dallas, and winning goalie Lehtonen made 25 saves.
“For 45 minutes we played just a model game,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “Our big guys came to play. That first 45 minutes, this building was dead. There was nothing going on. (Then, as Minnesota rallied,) the building got loud. I was just trying to tell (my players), ‘Listen, we’ve got to play.’ You’ve got to live that environment to get better at it.”
“I think it’s good for (our) young team to see that and go through it,” said Spezza. “I know we’ll use that going forward. This will show how hard it is to put teams away, how much they don’t want their season to end. This is a lesson we will definitely remember.”
Wild captain Mikko Koivu necessitated the Sunday afternoon nail-biter when he scored with 3:09 left in regulation and beat Dallas goalie Antti Niemi just under five minutes into overtime April 22 for a 5-4 win in Game Five. Dallas needed a return to the Land of 10,000 Lakes despite outplaying and outshooting (41-24) their visitors,.
“We knew they were going to bring a strong effort (because) their lives were on the line,” said Stars captain Benn after Dallas had its eight-game home winning streak snapped. “It was a tough one to lose.”
The Stars overcame 2-0 and 3-2 deficits in the game, taking a 4-3 lead in the third period when Spezza and Goligoski scored goals 28 seconds apart before Koivu took center stage. Defenseman Johnny Oduya and captain Benn also scored for Dallas.
“It’s a seven-game series, and there are a lot of momentum swings,” said Spezza. “We have to be happy where we are and disappointed that we lost the game. We have a chance to close it out again next game. We’re in a good position. (We’ll) get some rest……and we’ll be ready to go.”
“I loved the way our team competed. We had ninety-plus attempts and skated as good as we skated,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff, who is hoping for the return of goal sniper Tyler Seguin in the next series. “Not once was there any quit in them and they kept coming back, and we got the lead. In the third period, we didn’t make a lot of mistakes, but we made one with about three minutes left that hurt us.”
In Game Four, the Stars put a three-games-to-one stranglehold on the host Wild with a tight 3-2 victory at Xcel Energy Center on April 20. “Today was a typical playoff road win — we hunkered down at the end, it wasn’t pretty, and we got the results,” said Spezza, who redirected home a shot by defenseman Jason Demers to break a 2-2 tie in the second period. “We’re excited to be heading back home with a chance to wrap it up.”
Goaltender Niemi stopped 28 shots in his series debut. “He’s a veteran goalie and he handled it great,” said forward Patrick Eaves after Dallas registered its first road playoff victory for the first time since May 17, 2008 at Detroit. “We were really confident with him back there. He’s been working his butt off in practice all day and battling. He was ready, and I think it showed tonight. I’m pretty proud of him.”
Eaves and Ales Hemsky also scored — both on the power play — for the Stars.
Two nights earlier on April 18, Minnesota won its first game of the series with a 5-3 victory in Game Three at Xcel Energy Center over the visiting Stars. The Wild, in desperate need of a victory, fell behind 2-0, but rallied for the victory that cut the Stars’ lead to two games to one.
“We didn’t play near as well as we needed to play,” said Ruff after Dallas managed only 17 shots on goal and allowed five goals for the first time in more than a month. “(We played) probably as (poorly) as I’ve seen us play in maybe five weeks. A lot of it was execution, playmaking, our transition game from defense to forwards. We turned some pucks over that cost us goals. We turned over plenty of pucks. We were just slow; we were slow making plays.”
“Give them credit, they played a good game, they played with a lot of speed and scored some timely goals,” noted Stars forward Patrick Sharp, who netted a pair of goals, said of the Wild. “You could tell that they fed off the energy of their fans. We’ll take what we can as far as positives from this game and be ready for Game 4.”
Dallas needed an improbable goal from forward Antoine Roussel and a strong defensive effort to hold off a determined Minnesota sextet, 2-1 in Game Two at American Airlines Center on April 16.
“It was exactly what we expected, and you have to get through those games,” Ruff said after the Stars went up two games to none. “By the end of the night, we did a really good job just staying with it.”
Roussel‘s goal, which gave Dallas a 1-0 lead early in the second period, occurred when the puck hit Hemsky’s skate, deflected off Roussel’s skate and sailed up and over the back of the net and rested on Wild’s goalie Devan Dubnyk’s back before falling over the goal line as the net wobbled on its moorings. The goal was initially waved off but after a long review, the call was reversed.
“I was trying to kick it back on my stick and just perfect,” Roussel said. “It looked like a (Sidney) Crosby goal. I’ve scored goals in many ways, but not like that.”
“I’ve seen some crazy ones and seen some that are similar,” Ruff said, “I don’t think I’ve seen one where it’s gone to review, and you don’t know whether it went in, you don’t know if the net is off, you don’t know whether it was high sticked or you don’t know whether it was kicked. So, there were a lot of options there to go over.”
Goalie Lehtonen stopped 25 of 26 shots and came up with several big saves. “Kari gave us a great game (including) a couple of saves there late on the six-on-five,” Ruff said of Lehtonen, who posted his eighth win in his last nine starts. “He was strong all night for us. His goaltending has been very strong going down the stretch here for us.”
Captain Benn’s breakaway goal gave Dallas a 2-0 lead, and they hung on for the triumph. High scoring forward Tyler Seguin saw his first action since March 17, and played on several different lines.
The Stars opened the first round series with a 4-0 victory on April 14 at American Airlines Center. Lehtonen made 22 saves to record his second career playoff shutout while Radek Faksa, captain Benn, Spezza and Eaves each scored a goal.
“The play in front of me was excellent,” said Lehtonen. “Our defensive play has been getting better and better and tonight it was really good. I am really happy about the way guys were blocking shots and coming back and working really hard. That was the key today, I think.”