Pittsburgh Penguins @ Dallas Stars
February 29, 2012
American Airlines Center
Sometimes it takes a bit of perspective and time to realize just how special a particular game may be. When we were discussing what games belong on this list, both postseason and regular season games, it was tough to come up with the criteria that would lead a game to count as one of the "top games in Dallas Stars history." Some games are just more memorable than others because of nostalgic reasons or because of an epic and historic comeback. Some games just stick out in memory because of what they meant for that team at that time and how they guided the franchise into the future.
Some games were just pure, honest-to-goodness entertaining games that exhibit everything that makes this sport so incredible. Which is exactly why I thought of this particular game when coming up with our list of the top games in Dallas Stars history.
It's tough to know exactly how this game will stand out as the years progress, as it's been just five months since the Penguins walked out of the AAC with a shootout victory, but what we do know is that this exact game was easily the most entertaining of the season for the Dallas Stars and showcased the Stars at their very best in a season of extreme highs and lows.
Let's take a closer look after the jump.
The Dallas Stars had been overachieving for much of the season, riding a hot start to the top of the division and the conference and fighting the rest of the way to hopefully maintain their position in the standings and hopefully make the postseason for the first time since 2008. The Stars had fought through some key injuries, namely to Mike Ribeiro, and had lost their consistency from game to game as the season progressed into February.
After a nasty loss to the Nashville Predators at home it seemed as if the Stars had lost their way a bit -- until they embarked a short road trip through Montreal and Chicago and suddenly rediscovered what it was that could make this team successful. A combination of a drastic change in line combination strategies and a re-dedication to playing with emotion and speed had led to four straight wins -- including an exciting overtime win over the Vancouver Canucks at home that included a late comeback.
The Stars had already had Ribeiro back by this time yet were seeing the return of yet another center: Jamie Benn. It was hoped that Benn's return signal the next step in the Stars quest to improve on that four-game streak.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, still without Sidney Crosby, were nevertheless a formidable opponent for the Stars. A combination of stellar offensive firepower and defensive depth presented all sorts of matchup issues with the Stars, who had suffered some rather lopsided losses against obviously more talented teams. The recent stretch of wins and good performances seemed to be at risk against a dangerous Penguins team, who had completely dominated the Stars back in November in Pittsburgh.
On March 29, there were just four games being played across the NHL with the Stars and Penguins facing off on NBC Sports in front of a national television audience. Despite worry that the Stars would once again be outclassed in front of the entire NHL audience the Stars found a way to carry over the momentum from the win over the Canucks and play perhaps one of their most complete performances of the season.
The Stars and Penguins, for whatever reason, have found away the past few years to provide us with incredibly entertaining affairs. In 2010 the Stars dominated the Penguins in what many felt was the best game at the AAC in years, one which featured several fights including Matt Niskanen taking on future teammate Sidney Crosby.
In this game, the Stars were not content to just attempt to survive against an aggressive Penguins team but came exploded out of the gates focused on setting the tempo in their own arena. Jamie Benn would open the scoring at the 15:25 mark of the first period with a deft wrist shot from the slot before Steve Sullivan tied the score for the Penguins on a partial breakaway late in the period.
Score aside, the two teams displayed everything you could possibly want in a hockey game. Big hits, flaring tempers, and a wide open and aggressive game had many calling this at the time the most entertaining game of the season. As the game progressed into the second period, both teams locked down defensively with Kari Lehtonen and Marc-Andre Fleury combining to put on a heck of a goaltending extravaganza. The Stars, who had struggled with offense for most of the season, put 22 shots on goal in the first two periods alone -- with Sheldon Souray giving the Stars a 2-1 lead in the final seconds of the second period.
The good feelings and optimism that prevailed during the ensuing intermission were short-lived, however, as the Penguins answered with two goals early in the third just 39 seconds apart. Both shots were deflected from distance and past Lehtonen, the goals not being very reflective of just how great a game he had been playing to that point.
Despite the air being taken out of the AAC with the two goals and the feeling of "here we go again" sweeping through the fans, the Stars fought back until a brilliant pass by Loui Eriksson found Michael Ryder for the tying goal just three minutes later.
The rest of the period resembled the closest thing to a playoff game Stars fans have witnessed in years, with neither side content to just allow the game to get to overtime. Both teams fought hard for the win in regulation and once it progressed to overtime, fought even harder. It was physical and fast-paced, with several breakaways and rushes for both teams.
It's difficult to relay just how entertaining this game was through words; it was about the atmosphere in the building, it was about the intensity between two teams that never pay each other more than twice a season. It's unfortunate that such an incredible game had to be decided in a skills competition but that's exactly how it had to end -- with the Penguins walking away with the extra point after four rounds of the shootout.
"The building, the fans were really into it, you could feel it. It was kind of a back-and-forth game with the score and it was a fun game to be a part of there," said Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski. "We couldn't pull it out in the end, but we'll take our point and move on."
Despite the loss, the Stars walked away a more confident team. This game was the lone loss in an incredible 10-0-1 run the Stars embarked on between February and March but it was easily the best team peformance of that run. What's more is that they proved that when everything is working perfectly, the Stars were more than capable of competing with the best the NHL has to offer.
This game was important for several reasons, especially considering how it thrust the Stars back onto the national stage and proved that this is a team on the rise. Despite the way the season ended, it's games like these that we can look back on a see how the potential of the Stars and what is needed in order to improve an continue to take the next steps in improvement and rebuilding.
Unfortunately, the game itself was completely overshadowed by the Eric Nystrom hit on Kris Letang -- one that resulted in a penalty yet received no supplemental discipline from the NHL. It set off an incredible amount of debate around the NHL and showed once more how the injury and the player injured matters more than the actual hit itself; Vernon Fiddler was pancaked face first into the boards late in the game and yet no one muttered much about that one.
There was also the insane online reaction from Penguins fans, directed at Nystrom personally, that exposed the sad nature that can come with sports fanaticism.
Here's video of the hit:
And here's the incredibly entertaining debate on NBC Sports Network over the hit: