With 25 games still remaining this season, one could argue that it doesn't matter if the Stars hold down one of the eight playoffs spots at the moment, as long as they are still close enough mathematically to get in by the time game 82 rolls around.
Yet, on the emotional side of things, Wednesday's game against the San Jose Sharks was certainly a big one: win in regulation and the Stars would, at least temporarily, slide into the 8th playoff spot in the unforgiving Western Conference. It was a juicy confidence carrot dangling in front of Dallas' eyes, and the Stars played hard in spite of being on the second night of a back-to-back.
Sadly, it wasn't meant to be, as the Sharks, rarely ones to roll over and play dead for anybody, pushed back and turned out to be the better team on the evening, taking the match 2-1 on Tommy Wingels' overtime goal.
Valeri Nichushkin was great, scoring Dallas' lone goal, while Kari Lehtonen was a lot better than 19 saves out of 21 shots would suggest, keeping the Stars in the game.
Dallas' single point pushes them past the Phoenix Coyotes into the 9th spot in the West, but it's hard not to think about the kind of morale victory that the two points would have brought. Still, with plenty of painstaking hockey left to be played, the Stars will need to continue to keep their focus on the big picture.
San Jose, unsurprisingly, came out aggressively, looking to draw blood early in front of their home crowd. Dallas' defensive game wasn't as stingy as it has been the past two games, but Lehtonen, however, was more than up to the task, making some essential early saves and nine by the end of the period.
Jamie Benn had an excellent scoring chance at the side of the net with six minutes to go, but Sharks goalie Alex Stalock "broke Benn's heart," to quote Razor, with a stunning side-to-side glove save.
Although it wasn't their best period of the recent road trip, the Stars as a team maintained their composure and kept the score 0-0 through one, a sometimes difficult thing to do against a Sharks team that can really blow things open.
For the second period, the Stars certainly looked like a team on the second end of a back-to-back, but for some reason the rested Sharks seemed more than willing to oblige the slow pace. Teams traded shots, but rarely many quality chances.
It seemed like the entire period would go down that way, but with only 1:54 remaining the Stars got caught scrambling in their own end. Scott Hannan fired a hard slap-pass from the point that was purposefully redirected by Martin Havlat and behind Lehtonen for a 1-0 Sharks lead.
San Jose held a 17-14 shots advantage through two.
With the Sharks holding a record of 20-4-3 when leading going into the third, Dallas faced a tough uphill climb.
But the Stars came out determined, and Nichushkin tied the game up at 1-1 on what might be one of the best overall shifts of his young career. He lugged the puck up ice on a great individual effort and slid it between Stalock's legs, but it still managed to miss the net and a crashing Tyler Seguin. The Stars kept their pressure in the Sharks zone after the initial chance and were rewarded when a pinching Trevor Daley got the puck back over to Big Val, who slam-dunked a one-timer behind a scrambling Stalock.
Erik Cole was caught being a little overzealous in the defensive end late, slashing a Sharks forward's stick in half and sitting for two. Dallas' penalty kill came up huge, and then Cole almost redeemed himself once he got out of the box, zooming past a tired Dan Boyle on a breakaway and releasing a backhand shot that slid under Stalock but didn't cross the line.
Although the refs barely called anything through the first two periods, they were surprisingly more disciplinary in the third, calling a borderline penalty against Cole once again with only 3:47 to go. The penalty kill was perfect again, keeping the puck in San Jose's end for half of the kill.
Shots in the period were, crazily, only 6-2 for the Stars, even though it felt like there were much more than that. Full points to a fatigued Stars team for keeping the Sharks to only two shots in the frame.
Stalock had a beautiful glove save in the first, but Lehtonen had a great one of his own early in OT on Brent Burns. Seriously, keep an eye out for that one in the highlights.
Lehtonen's heroics would not be rewarded, as the Sharks would score to win the game not long after. Sergei Gonchar and Kevin Connauton were caught looking more than defending, allowing Havlat too much time and space to thread a cross-crease pass to Wingels at the side of the net.
Thoughts And Observations:
- One of the Benn brothers was noticeably excellent tonight, and for once it wasn't Jamie. The elder Jordie Benn played one of his best games of the season, and did so at both ends of the ice, sending some nice shots at the San Jose net and being both smart and aggressive in his own end. What Jordie does isn't flashy, but he's developing into a very effective second pair defenceman overall, and he showed that tonight.
- Speaking of defencemen, Trevor Daley also made things happen tonight. With three goals in his last 11 games it was clear that he wanted to keep that streak going, firing a ton of pucks. Although none found the net, a smart offensive pinch and a smooth pass entirely made Nichushkin's tying goal possible.
- A+ goes out to Dallas' penalty killers tonight, notably the forwards: Vernon Fiddler, Antoine Roussel, Cody Eakin and Ryan Garbutt. Even though they only had to kill off three penalties, they did their job magnificently, especially on the two late in the third.
- Kevin Connauton and Sergei Gonchar would probably like to have that game back, as they were on the ice for both San Jose goals. Their playing styles don't really complement each other as a pair, but with the duos of Goligoski-Daley and Benn-Dillon looking good together and Gonchar being better than Rome, what else can you do? It was only Connauton's second game in the last two weeks, and the young defenceman needs to play.
- Tyler Seguin extended his point streak to seven games. With confirmed reports of Steven Stamkos not being healthy enough to join Team Canada in Sochi, could Seguin, another young C/RW hybrid with an excellent shot, be called upon in his place? Considering his current tear, it might not be as crazy as you think
- Maybe I'm looking for any kind of redemption here, but perhaps the overtime loss, and not grabbing that last wildcard spot right now, will be a better things for the Stars in the long run? Too much celebration now could take their eyes off the bigger prize. Keep your head down and keep plugging away.