It's a shame that only the most hardcore of Dallas Stars fans likely held on to the end of last night's game. With the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings fighting for playoff positioning -- in January -- the intensity, brutality, skill and fortitude shown by both teams is exactly why we love this sport so much. If there are games we should have ready to show new fans as why they need to love the Dallas Stars, this would be it.
Eight combined goals, multiple lead changes, 79 combined shots on goal and nearly 80 hits total in a game and 64 penalty minutes came in perhaps the most entertaining game of the season -- a game that the Dallas Stars likely would have lost earlier this year.
The hope was that, after losing badly to Columbus then rebounding in a big win against Boston, that the Stars were turning a corner. Since that loss to the Blue Jackets, the Stars are 4-2-0 with only one true letdown of a game, another loss to a bad Anaheim Ducks team. With the Stars sitting just outside the playoff bubble, this was a team that could not afford another bad performance on the road -- and they nearly found a way to lose in Los Angeles.
"I thought it was a tremendous hockey game tonight, maybe not for the coaches but for the fans," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. "It was exciting, it was fast through 65 full minutes."
The Stars lost their discipline in the third period and it looked as if they would once again come unraveled in a close game. On this night, however, the Stars would regroup and bolstered by the physical play of their captain would fight back for the shootout victory.
Once again outplaying their opponent in the first period, the Stars roared to a 2-0 lead on the back of several incredible individual efforts, notably Brenden Morrow starting the rush up ice on Loui Eriksson's first goal. With Kari Lehtonen making several big saves in the first, with 32 combined shots between the two teams, the Stars would head into the second period with a two-goal lead and confidence that the struggles against Anaheim were behind them.
Yet the Stars would fall victim to their second period frustrations, once again being outscored in the middle frame as the Kings would erase two separate two-goal leads. In third period, with the Stars fighting to maintain their lead in a close game, penalty trouble would doom the Stars as two power play goals would give the Kings the lead midway through the third period.
Then, Brenden Morrow happened.
"We watched it in slow motion and in my mind it was a clean hit," Gulutzan said. "He fell very awkward. I hope he is OK. I don't know the extent of anything there. He fell awkwardly into the boards. I don't think anything will come of it, but that is for the league to decide."
With a hit that completely change the course of the game, Brenden Morrow laid out Anze Kopitar behind the Stars net with what has to be the cleanest-yet-borderline-disastrous hit of the season. Kopitar slammed awkwardly into the boards -- instantly reminding Stars fans of Mike Modano's fall into the boards -- and remained on the ice. Mike Richards, as would be expected, came to his teammate's aid and took on Morrow in a heated fight. The only problem -- Richards was wearing a visor.
The ensuing four-minute power play for the Stars gave their struggling power play enough time to figure things out, with Loui Eriksson scoring his second goal of the night in an emphatic statement, the night after being snubbed from the All-Star Game.
The Stars would hold on through overtime, eventually winning in the shootout thanks once again to Eriksson.
The penalty trouble, and ensuing struggles of the penalty kill, were worrisome for a team that has shown that they can break down at times when things start to get out of control. Unlike the game against the Ducks, when the Stars would allow three unanswered goals in the third period, the Stars would fight back with a team mentality and attack that exemplifies everything this Dallas Stars team is capable of.
"Of course it was important win for us. It's always a tight game against L.A. I thought we came back there pretty good and finally won the game. It was two big points for us," said Eriksson. "It was really intense out there. We took too many penalties, but we found a way to stick with it."
While the penalty issues are certainly a concern, this was overall a strong team effort against a Kings team that had been one of the hottest in the NHL -- and had allowed just two goals per game over the past month. The Stars, crashing the net and creating space offensively, were able to score four goals on what many consider the best defensive team in hockey.
"It was a huge win for us," forward Eric Nystrom said, who scored in the first period. "The last few games we've been just forcing plays a little bit and maybe didn't have our usual jump. But tonight we pursued the puck and were getting pucks to the net and taking what they were giving us. That really helped us out."
More than anything, the Stars used a hard-charging and physical attack that provided the foundation for a solid team game. Mark Fistric, Steve Ott and Brenden Morrow were all on fire along the boards, with Morrow being the catalyst for several big plays with hard hits in the defensive zone. With the Kings playing just as physically, the night took on the feel of a playoff game and the players responded accordingly.
"There was some great intensity in the game," said Nystrom. "Guys were moving their feet and skating well. That's a big rival for us and if you can't get up for a game like that, you are playing the wrong sport. It was great energy with the guys and a huge win for us."
Brenden Morrow, who has been under fire for most of the season because of his offensive struggles, showed the sort of leadership he's become known for over the course of a career. Morrow had two important assists early in the game, yet it was his physical attack that truly set the tone for his team.
Morrow has had a rough season, yet when he's playing hard along the boards and punishing players with big hits, it feeds the rest of the team and opens up chances for his teammates. While this might not have been his best game of the season, his performance showed just how important he can be to this Stars team.
Perhaps the best example of how far this team has come, and how they've grown together over the past few years, came in overtime as Drew Doughty decided it would be smart to run Kari Lehtonen after a big save. With Doughty giving a nice forearm to Lehtonen and then Justin Williams deciding to jump on the fallen goaltender -- Sheldon Souray and Jamie Benn protected their teammate by taking on the Kings literally inside their own net.
This team has come a long way since the days of Ott standing by himself, with no one at his side, against the Anaheim Ducks in 2009. This is a team that plays for each other and possesses incredible team chemistry and last night -- in a game they likely would have lost three weeks ago -- the Stars used that chemistry to fight back and get two very important points against a division rival.
The Stars need to find a way to channel these sorts of performances and become more consistent as a team. While it's encouraging to see the Stars respond well within the game, and especially after that loss in Anaheim, for the Stars to have any hope of making the playoffs they must become more consistent -- there's that word again.
We've established this isn't the most skilled team in the NHL and they have some major defensive issues that are holding them back at times, but when the Stars find that inner intensity that we've come to know so well not only are they an extremely tough team to play against, they're a great team to be a fan of. This sort of hockey, these sorts of performances, is what helps to build a fanbase around a team you can't help but love.
Further thoughts on a big win for the Stars:
- Kari Lehtonen, while he did allow four goals, had a monster night. 16 saves in the first period and he withstood an onslaught by the Kings late in the third and overtime. While he was shaken up by Doughty's hit in overtime, Lehtonen stood tall in the shootout and gave his team the chance to walk away with two very important points.
- Mark Fistric, paired Alex Goligoski once again, had perhaps his best game of the season. He made several big plays in front of the net and was the most physical player on the team; this is the type of game the Stars need from him on a regular basis.
- Jamie Benn, while he didn't register a point, had another big game. He was inches away from a few goals and showed his incredibly quick release; more importantly, he was big defensively and made several key plays in his own zone to spark some big goals.