Playoff hockey – and not golf — is the desired game of choice for the Dallas Stars for mid-April. But the Stars, who began the month of March like a point-devouring lion, finished the month lamblike by losing two of their last three games, and may well miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
Devastating setbacks at Edmonton on March 27 and against visiting Calgary three nights later have put their postseason on life support. With just five regular season games remaining on their schedule, Dallas trails 8th place Winnipeg by six points.
The Stars had won nine of 11 games in March despite missing then-leading scorer Tyler Seguin and top defensemen Trevor Daley and John Klingberg during that stretch as they clawed their way back into the Western Conference wild card race.
Riding that momentum from Calgary to Edmonton as part of a three-game western Canada swing, they came out flat and dropped a lackluster 4-0 decision to the Oilers, who have been out of the playoff race since Christmas.
After a come-from-behind 4-3 overtime win in Vancouver on Klingberg’s goal the following evening, Dallas trailed 8th place Winnipeg by six points and 9th place Los Angeles by four. The Jets have five games remaining; they host Vancouver and the Flames, and have a three-game road trip to Minnesota, St. Louis and Colorado. The Kings have six games left; vs. Edmonton, Colorado and San Jose in addition to road games at Canucks, Oilers and Flames.
Following a last minute 4-3 Jets’ loss to visiting Chicago on Sunday, March 29 the Stars had a chance to cut the lead to just four points and put the pressure on the Jets (who also dropped a 3-2 decision to the visiting New York Rangers on March 31).
But Dallas could not capitalize on a 2-1 lead after one period, allowing Calgary to erupt for three second period goals on Monday night en route to a 5-3 triumph that solidified their hold on 3rd place in the Pacific Division while seriously hurting the Stars’ chance to play when the playoffs begin on Tax Day (April 15).
“We emptied the tank again and we played extremely hard (against Calgary),” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff after his team went up in Flames. “(Our) effort was good. If the effort was bad, I’d stand here and tell you it was bad. They gave me everything they had. (This has been) a tough stretch of games. Even with the frustration of getting down they still fought and got the early goal and in all reality should have had a couple of more. At the start of the second period you look at (Antoine) Roussel walking in alone, you look at (Patrick) Eaves in front of the net just tipping it wide. You look at some of those plays and we could have put the game away and didn’t. We’ve had too many of those games where we were right there to put the game away (but) we weren’t able to put the nail in the coffin.
“But for me it’s not over yet,” he quickly added. “We’re going to keep pushing.”
Forwards Jason Spezza and Seguin (his team leading 35th of the season) scored in the first and last minute, respectively of the opening period to give Dallas a 2-1 lead at the first intermission. But goalie Kari Lehtonen – whose heroics have helped fuel the late-season Dallas charge – was off on this night. He allowed a seemingly manageable shot by Dennis Wideman to elude him in the first period.
After a shot by Jiri Hudler deflected off Dallas defenseman Alex Goligoski to tie the score 2-2 midway through the second period, Lehtonen allowed Calgary defenseman Raphael Diaz to pull him way out of the goal and skate around behind the net before depositing the puck into an unguarded cage and give the visitors a 3-2 lead. Flames rookie Johnny Gaudreau’s slot shot sailed past Lehtonen’s glove later in the 2nd stanza to give the visitors a 4-2 lead and end the goalie’s evening.
Stop me if you’ve read this before, but the Stars staged a furious 3rd period comeback that included 15 shots on goal (to only four by Calgary), but it began and ended on a Jason Demers goal less than four minutes into the session.
“We’re obviously frustrated now,” said Spezza, who also registered an assist. “I don’t know what’s going to happen the rest of the way, but this team’s not going to quit. We’ve got to try to run the table, try to get as many points as we can, but there’s no doubt this one stings. We out-chanced them, we’re playing at home, they’re playing (the second night of consecutive games). We had a lot of good things. We just don’t hit the back end (of the net) enough.”
The Stars, who must run the table in their final five regular season games, will host St. Louis and Nashville sandwiched around a three-game road swing as they visit the Predators, Sharks, and Ducks.