The Dallas Stars probably should have seen it coming.
After all, the Tampa Bay Lightning were called out by their coach after a listless effort in their first game out of the Olympic break, where they allowed the Nashville Predators to come back from a 2-0 hole for a 3-2 win. So the fact that they were on top of their game early and not about to crater mentally as the Stars tried to stage another comeback was fairly predictable. While it could have been just more of the same from the Lightning, a renewed sense of team defense and a sparking performance from goalie Ben Bishop led them to a 4-2 win over the Stars at the American Airlines Center.
It started early for the Lightning, who threw their top line on the ice two times in the first two minutes of the game and were rewarded when some poor zone-entry coverage led to an uncontested shot from the high slot by Eric Brewer. The shot was headed well wide but ticked in off the pad of Martin St. Louis, who was unguarded off to Kari Lehtonen's left, and into the net. Jordie Benn was the closest defender in the area, but he was more concerned with the unguarded point shot.
The Stars seemed to bounce back well, limiting the best Lightning shots for the middle of the period while getting some quality opportunities from Tyler Seguin, Erik Cole and Alex Chiasson. But that good work was undone when some overaggressive double-teaming on the half-wall in the Stars zone once again left a point man open. This time, it was Nate Thompson who tipped Viktor Hedman's shot past Lehtonen.
Things could have gone from bad to worse a few minutes later when Alex Chiasson was nailed with a double minor for high sticking. And although a well-deserved embellishment penalty against Ryan Garbutt took away a call that would have equalized the manpower, the Stars made it through with only two shots allowed.
For a while, it looked like things had turned in the second period. The Stars dominated the shot clock and general possession but could not figure out how to beat former Texas Tornado goalie Ben Bishop, who might be so big that be blocks out the sun.
But even after holding the Lightning without a shot for 12 minutes, it was more of the same for Dallas. Kevin Connauton made an aggressive offensive move, then continued to pursue the puck deep after the initial save. None of the forwards on the ice - Cody Eakin being the most likely candidate - rotated back to cover his position, and a weak pass from Ray Whitney was picked off and turned into a breakaway from St. Louis.
The Stars finally got a break just over a minute later when Connauton's shot from the half wall was tipped by Antoine Roussel then ricocheted off a Lighting defender's skate and past Bishop. That seemed to open the floodgates for the Stars a bit.
Two minutes later, the Lightning left Vernon Fiddler all alone behind the net, and he took the opportunity to walk out to Bishop's left and squeaked a puck between the goalie's glove and extra-large set of pads. And the barrage continued in the last minute of the period when some strong work on the boards from Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin resulted in the Stars first power play of the game.
That power play rolled over to the start of the third period, but the Stars couldn't get anything going on it despite some good looks at the end of the second.
Dallas continued to own the possession, shots and scoring chances for the first half of the third, but once again it was the Lightning that managed to break through, this time on an unscreened shot from just inside the blueline by Sami Salo. Of all the goals, this is the one Lehtonen probably most wants back.
Another quiet power play and some more chances that were stymied by Bishop was all she wrote for the Stars on this afternoon. They didn't go quietly, but only one man would stand tall when this one was over.
More observations from my sofa
- Before we get into the game itself, Brenden Dillon was a scratch this afternoon with a presumed lower-body injury. His official status is day-to-day at this point. In terms of ice time, he hasn't been the Stars No. 1 defenseman since Stephane Robidas went down, but he is the most talented shut-down guy on the team. It's already hard enough without Robidas - a stretch without Dillon would only serve to make things that much more complicated.
- This was not a great day to be Kari Lehtonen. There wasn't much he could do about the first two Lightning goals, which took hard deflections at the side of the crease and in the slot, but he got a piece of the third on a semi-breakaway from St. Louis, and the fourth was an unscreened shot from straightaway. To be fair to him, it was rolling a bit and likely hard to track as it left the stick, but this was a game the Stars needed a few more key saves in.
- Speaking of key saves, Bishop was just as lucky as he was good as the game rolled along, but it was pretty darn effective. I wonder if some of the issues with the missed shots were due to his raw size - when you see a 6-foot-7 guy in the net, the temptation to really pick a corner probably grows. He didn't have to make any truly spectacular saves, but he made all the ones expected of him and a few more. He, more than anyone else, got the Lightning the two points in this one.
- The Stars did make Bishop work for this one at least. Once they got through the slow start in the first period, they basically owned the puck in the Lightning zone and gave up very few stretches of extended zone time to Tampa Bay. The line of Garbutt, Fiddler and Roussel caused all sorts of havoc at both ends of the ice for Dallas.
- The Stars problems when they have at least 40 shots can go away any time now. They're 1-5-3 in those games. As Razor put it in the third, "They've looked great, but looking great gets you nothing in this game."
- When it comes to looking great, the power play is back to not again. They definitely had their good moments today, creating some really chaotic scrambles as well as above-average looks, but more often than not it was fairly pedestrian.
- Definitely looking great was the Stars first line, but none of Jamie Benn, Nichushkin nor Seguin could turn some absolutely dominant shifts into actual point production. Such things happen, of course, and creating chances is obviously being better than held completely quiet. But you'd like in a game like this, especially late, to see them do damage on the scoreboard.
- Finally, the real damage in this game came early and was the fault of some real firewagon coverage from the Stars forwards, both on zone entries and trying to jar possession loose along the boards. Both of the first goals started as fairly uncontested point shots where there were forwards who could have and should have been marking the shooter. The Stars have struggled at times with their team defense, and it cost them once again this game.