Well, NBC got their money's worth tonight. The Pittsburgh Penguins out dueled the Dallas Stars 4-3 in a shootout Wednesday night in front of a house raucously divided. The loss snapped the Stars' four game win streak and tightens things even further in the Western Conference playoff race.
A nice find by Steve Ott got things started in the first when Jamie Benn received a pass right in the slot and beat Fleury to give the Stars a 1-0 lead 15 minutes into the period. The Penguins would not stay quiet for long, however, when Pascal Dupuis made a great cross-ice pass that caught Alex Goligoski cheating a little bit, and Steve Sullivan broke in on Lehtonen uncontested and knotted things at one.
There might not be a better way to describe the second period than "breathtaking." Not necessarily in a good way, most of the time, but it certainly had the home town fans on the edges of their seats throughout. The Penguins enjoyed three power plays and end to end action but couldn't get one past Lehtonen. The Stars struck with just seconds remaining in the frame when Sheldon Souray got a pass in the slot, chaos already having unfolded in front of the net, and beat Fleury to send the Stars to the break with a 2-1 lead.
In the third, a crazy game turned even crazier. The Penguins, who came into this one with a +22 goal differential in third periods this season, scored two quick goals in less than a minute to retake the lead and shock the American Airlines Center. Michael Ryder would answer three tense minutes later to knot the score at three, and then the shenanigans started. Evgeni Malkin mixed it up with Eric Nystrom and then Steve Ott mixed it up with about half the Penguin team as tensions continued to rise into the game's final minutes.
As is often the case this time of year, overtime ensued and the Stars carried a power play over to the extra frame after very nearly ending it in regulation, but they couldn't connect despite a great deflection play for Stephane Robidas and a Sheldon Souray shot that rang off the cross bar. Jamie Benn extended the shootout to an extra round but Kari Lehtonen got beat on three out of four shooters and that, coupled with the Stars inability to take advantage of a bevy of chances earlier in the game, proved to be the difference tonight.
The Stars push their point total up by one to 71, but fall even further back of the Chicago Blackhawks in 7th place, who won a 4-3 game against the Maple Leafs. Dallas now departs for a three game Canadian road swing before coming back for a huge game against the San Jose Sharks.
Back in a few with more observations from this one...Simply judging from the quality AND quantity of the stops that Fleury was forced to make, it's really hard not to say that the Stars weren't the better team in this one. Certainly 5-on-5. Spending ten minutes out of 60 killing penalties didn't help that cause any.
Fleury stopped three breakaways: Fiddler, Burish, and Eriksson. He made another sensational play to stop Loui Eriksson from shoving a puck home with just seconds remaining in regulation. He made a great stop on Robidas at the end of overtime, and the got beat by Souray by that one hit the cross bar. Even when the Stars beat Fleury tonight they had a tough time beating him clean. (Benn, Ryder goals). He was outrageously good and the number one reason why the Stars couldn't get this one. He improves to 6-0-0 in his career over the Dallas Stars.
The big item from this one will be the Eric Nystrom hit on Kris Letang. We've all seen it a dozen times by now and you'll have formed your own opinion, whatever your allegiance. It wasn't a blind side hit, and it wasn't particularly malicious. Letang might want to keep his head up, even, you might say.
That being said, he didn't return and he's probably injured. The NHL has said (right or wrong) that they DO take injuries into account, not just the action itself, and so for that I would guess that Nystrom will receive some kind of supplementary discipline. The number of games is anyone's guess.
- The legend of Ryan Garbutt continues. That one shift alone midway through the second period in which the Stars spent entire minutes in the Pens end was great. He eventually drew the penalty on that sequence and had a shot on goal or two along the way. His ability to impact a game in a short amount of time is impressive, and necessary, seeing as how he only received 5:58 of ice time tonight.
- Does Evgeni Malking ever leave the ice? (Well, except for that double minor, I mean) 24 minutes tonight.
- Jamie Benn looked like good old Jamie Benn in his return, though as I look it up I see he managed just two shots on goal, so that will have to come up. Playing with Burish and Ott, and in the situations in which they'll typically be placed (against team's best lines, defensive zone starts) will limit his productivity, but he's generally able to get chances regardless of where he starts on the ice.
- Quality of competition: From the drop of the puck, when you watch a team like Pittsburgh play in this building, or Vancouver on Sunday, it jumps out at you that "Whoa, this is not Minnesota here." These are elite teams playing an elite brand of hockey, and the Stars have a lot of that coming up in March. A moral victory is worth less than nothing in these situations, but if you want to take some encouragement heading forward, it's that Dallas seems to have some stomach for this kind of high level fight. I don't know if that is enough, but it's better than the alternative.
- Power play disparity: The Stars wound up only having one fewer power plays than the Penguins did, but at the point that it was 5-1 in favor of Pittsburgh you have to think that MOST nights the game might be swung too far in the opponent's direction. Give credit to the Stars killers tonight who kept the clean sheet on the job, but this is a disturbing trend that just won't go away this year, and it was the usual suspects again. Souray, Ott, and Benn. When Brenden Morrow comes back they'll have to be even more careful.
- Dvorak icing play: A weird one happened there where Dvorak was injured on an icing call against the Stars. He didn't take the next faceoff and instead went to the locker room for a short time. Curiously there doesn't appear to be any way to penalize a player on that, as he was allowed to return to the ice later and finish the game. I wondered at the time if you miss that mandatory icing faceoff if you'd be allowed to return. You learn something new every day.
- Say what you want about the crowd being just completely and utterly invaded by people that are supposedly from Pittsburgh, but the closeness of the game added a lot of fuel to that fire with opposing chants and whatnot, and it was a lot of fun. I am typing this sentence as the game is still tied, so we'll see how I feel about that one here in a bit. Update: They dispersed a lot faster than some of the other groups, so at least there's peace and quiet to write. That's as nice as I can be.