By Will Martin
The Phoenix Coyotes were on a back-to-back after winning at home 2-0 over the Chicago Blackhawks. The first shutout Chicago has suffered since 2012. A span of 127 games!
With that win played before a capacity crowd that included members of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” team there was one more game to be played before the Olympics break.
Hence a visit to Dallas, Texas to play the Stars and try to exact a little payback after a 3-1 defeat at home for the 27-20-10 Coyotes and the 26-21-10 Stars.
You always wonder whether or not a letdown is inevitable when you start to look ahead to the Olympic break. At the AAC last Saturday night there were seven players representing different countries including Val Nichushkin, Jamie Benn, and Kari Lehtonen with Lindy Ruff also doing his part for Team Canada.
Ray Whitney got the ball rolling early with his seventh goal of the season. A wrister that got past Mike Smith for an early 1-0 lead, assisted by Brendan Dillon (8) and Jordie Benn (10).
Dallas would increase the lead to 2-0 at 19:26 when a rifled snap shot into the Coyote net went for a score after it was reviewed. Valeri Nichushkin claimed his 13th score of the year assisted by Jamie Benn (29) and Trevor Daley (7).
Kari Lehtonen was lights out on this night a mere 14 seconds away from another career shutout before Coyote winger Radim Vrbata proceeded to snap a shot past the glove of Kari Lehtonen at 19:44 on a power play goal to close the gap to 2-1. An icing call on Phoenix iced the game for a Dallas 2-1 victory.
Going into the break Dallas is the #8 seed. In a dead heat with the Coyotes at 27-21-10 and 64 points. To give you an idea of how tight things are in the Western Conference going into the break between the 6th and 12th seeds there is only a margin of nine points separating seven teams.
Lindy Ruff has spoken ad infinitum about the number of points Dallas has managed to avoid or not get in overtime or the shootout. These eyes witnessed how happy and how loose the staff of players and coaches were as the Olympic break for some shall commence and welcomed by the others.
“We’ve come from a long way,” Stars Head Coach Lindy Ruff said. “You’ve got to give the guys credit for digging in. I thought if we got three or four points at the break, we could be a serious contender. We’ve exceeded that. Those dark days of January we can put behind us.”
Dave Tippett was a little disappointed that an opportunity to build momentum from 24 hours prior fell a little short.
“Well, it’s a tough turnaround, but it’s a big game,” Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett said. “You’ve got to find ways to win. We just don’t do things smart enough to give ourselves the best chance.”
Mike Smith was 30 for 32 in saves opportunities and was credited by Radim Vrbata for keeping Phoenix in the game.
“Yeah, he kept us in the game. He gave us a chance,” Vrbata said of Smith. “We couldn’t generate too much offensively, but I think he’s playing the way we know he can play. Hopefully, he’s going to stay like that and we can do a little better for him.”
Kari Lehtonen was your #1 Star of the game with 26 out of 27 stops. Star #2 went to Ray Whitney for getting the scoring started while Val Nichushkin got star #3 in the 2-1 victory. Dallas outshot the Coyotes 33-27 while having success in winning the faceoff battle 33-26.
After what was a dreadful start to 2014 the Stars have played above .500 since the 4-0 shutout of the Minnesota Wild playing at 6-4-1. The mad dash to April and a chance to see two teams occupy the American Airlines Center in April for the first time since 2008 makes me very excited for the people of Dallas, Texas.
Be sure to enjoy the Olympic break. May the run for the Gold be as exciting as what Canada and USA provided in Vancouver provided back in 2010.