By Martin Iheke
Believe it or not, but your Dallas Stars enter the Olympic Break holding the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Who would have thought almost four weeks ago when this team was in the midst of a six-game losing streak that they would head into the break in 8th place? Not many people including yours truly believed it, but you have to give this group a lot of credit for overcoming a lot of adversity and getting back to playing their style of hockey. Head coach Lindy Ruff deserves some credit for keeping these guys in line and not letting this young team completely fall apart. Stars captain Jamie Benn also deserves some credit as he has led the way on both ends of the ice after playing one of his worst games of the season at the Nashville Predators on January 20th. There is plenty of credit to go around for this amazing turnaround as the Stars are 6-2-2 in their last ten games.
Part of this run by the Stars was their two huge wins in regulation over the Phoenix Coyotes this past week. Going into last Tuesday night’s game at Phoenix, the Stars were just three points back of the Coyotes for ninth place. They knew going in that they could not afford to lose and fall five points back so this was a huge game and they played like it. After trailing, 1-0, in the middle of the second period, forward Shawn Horcoff tied the game on a power play goal. From there, the Stars controlled the rest of the game with an aggressive fore-check using their speed to frustrate the Coyotes as they would go on to win, 3-1. Forward Antoine Roussel who would score the game-winning goal in the third period talked after the game. “We knew that was one of the biggest games of the year,” Roussel said according to NHL.com. “We didn’t start the way we wanted, but the third period was really good for us and we got away with the win. The last 10 minutes we locked it down and didn’t give them much,” as he continued. The Stars are also doing a better job closing games which is something they had trouble doing last month when they would have a lead in the third period. Playing aggressive the whole game helps a whole lot.
Unfortunately, the Stars could not keep the momentum going the next night in San Jose against the Sharks. After rookie Valeri Nichushkin tied the game at one a piece in third period, the game went into overtime and once again the Stars would lose thanks a goal scored by Sharks forward Tommy Wingels, 2-1. “It’s an area we have to improve in,” head coach Lindy Ruff said according to dallasnews.com. “That’s not good enough. We lost coverage on the goal and they made us pay for it,” as he continued. Of course he is talking about the team’s overall performance beyond regulation this season. Despite picking up points in these games, they are also leaving on the board the extra points as the Stars are now 1-6 in overtime this season. Thankfully, the Phoenix Coyotes were the next opponent again for the Stars as they would hold on to a 2-1 victory at home last Saturday night. Goalie Kari Lehtonen was superb again with 26 saves. After the game, he talked about almost getting his fourth shutout of the season. “Well, you always want it,” Lehtonen said. “When we were on the power play, I felt like we had a better chance to get it but they had a broken play, a breakaway then drew a penalty and got a goal. But I was happy that it came that late so it was not too much time for them to try and get another one,” as he continued.
With the win in regulation and a Vancouver Canucks loss on the same night, the Stars moved into a tie with the Coyotes at 64 points with the same amount of games played but because the Stars own the first tiebreak with one more regulation/overtime win at 24, they currently hold the last playoff spot in the West. The Stars will now enjoy the almost three-week Olympic break in 8th place and are hoping that this extended stay holding on to a playoff spot will not be their longest of the season when they get back to action on February 27th at home against the Carolina Hurricanes.