Bill Meltzer: Star Gazing: Stars Follow Familiar Script to 5-2 Loss to Jets

249

Heading into last night’s home game against the Winnipeg Jets, the Dallas Stars were out to prove that Saturday’s convincing 4-1 win over Montreal was not just the product of being a rested team playing a tired opponent at the end of a long road trip and on the second half of back-to-back games. The Stars aimed for Saturday’s game to be a springboard to a winning streak marked by improved two-way play.

It didn’t happen.

Reverting to an all-too-familiar script of porous team defense — turnovers and coverage breakdowns galore — combined with sometimes leaky goaltending, the Stars suffered a 5-2 loss to Winnipeg at the American Airlines Center last night.

The Stars, who rank dead last in the NHL in goals against average, have yielded five goals in five of their last six games (the exception being Saturday’s win against the Habs) and are winless in the 10 games this season in which they’ve given up at least five goals. Over the last half-dozen games, the Stars are 1-4-1 and have taken just three of a possible 12 points.

Against the Habs, the Stars played a good puck pressure and skating game, holding the Canadiens to just 17 shots in a 4-1 victory that halted Dallas’ four-game winless skid. Was that simply the product of playing against a tired-legged opponent that had been having problems of its own during a stretch that the Habs play eight of nine games on the road and had just come off a game in Chicago the previous night?

Based on last night’s results, unfortunately, the answer for now seems to be yes.

Defensively, the Stars were an utter mess against the Jets. They couldn’t take of the puck, either under pressure or sometimes simply as the result of low-percentage risks going awry. The Stars yielded multiple odd-man rushes, including a back-breaking shorthanded semi-breakaway goal by Michal Frolik that made the score 5-2 in the second period.

Throughout the game — and this has been an ongoing problem with the Stars for awhile — the lack of muscle on defense got exposed. Stars defensemen got manhandled down low in the Dallas zone. Prior to being traded to San Jose in the Jason Demers deal, Brenden Dillon was the only Stars defenseman who brought any sort of regular physicality to the trench battles. Now there is pretty much no one who excels in that aspect.

It’s not just hitting that is lacking. Attempted pins to the boards were often shrugged off and, even when accomplished, no teammates got in to help dig out pucks. Opposing forwards also can attack the net with virtual impunity.

The team defense last night was as poor as it has been all season for the Stars. Defensemen got themselves caught up ice or out of position in their own zone. Forwards got on the wrong side of the puck and didn’t provide sufficient backchecking support. As a result, Winnipeg enjoyed free reign for long segments of the game and made life miserable for Kari Lehtonen (14 saves on 17 shots) and Jussi Rynnäs (13 for 15).

As has far too often been the case this season, Lehtonen was not blameless in the loss. The Adam Lowry goal he allowed at 7:24 of the second period — which gave San Jose a 3-2 lead after the Stars had battled back from deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 — was a stoppable shot that sneaked through the goalie’s pads on the short side. That ended Lehtonen’s night, and he was replaced the rest of the way by Rynnäs.

The first Winnipeg goal, a power play tally by Mathieu Perrault at 5:23 of the first period, was a collective penalty killing breakdown.The Stars ended up with their four penalty killers in virtually a straight horizontal line on one side with Lehtonen over-committed. Once the puck got to Perrault on the other side, he had plenty of room to score ahead of Lehtonen’s desperation dive across the crease.

To the Stars’ credit, they at least showed the resiliency to battle back from a pair of one goal deficits. Tyler Seguin buried a mid-first period power play goal off a nice feed from Jason Spezza for Seguin’s 22nd goal of the season. Jamie Benn earned the secondary assist.

Five minutes later, the Jets re-took the lead at 2-1 as Blake Wheeler did the honors on a counterattack that started off a neutral zone turnover by the Stars. The score held until Antoine Roussel scored a lunchpail goal off backhanded shot near the net at 3:29 of the second period.

After Lowry gave the Jets a 3-2 lead against Lehtonen, he greeted replacement netminder Rynnäs with a rebound goal off an initial shot by former Dallas defenseman Adam Pardy barely two minutes after his first goal. Now it was 4-2 Jets.

The coup de grace on this night was Frolik’s shorthanded goal. Dallas turned over a puck in the offensive zone and Frolik outskated and outworked Alex Goligoski to eventually shake free and score on a breakaway with 40 seconds remaining in the third period.

Things could have gotten even worse in the third period, but Rynnäs authored about several excellent saves — including a late-game breakaway save — while the Stars got outshot by an 11-6 margin in the final period.

There were not many bright spots for the Stars apart from their two goals in the game. The entire defense corps was atrocious, and the forwards were no better. That included standout rookie defenseman John Klingberg, who played the most error-filled and

sloppiest game both from a physical and mental standpoint (e.g., shooting a loose helmet at a Winnipeg player with his stick to earn a minor penalty) since his recall from the AHL.

The Stars have a few days to try to regroup at practice. The “hit the reset button and get back to basics” theme stressed by Lindy Ruff about 10 days ago has not taken hold except in the Montreal game. The team will go back to the drawing board as it prepares to host Jaromir Jagr an and the rest of the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night.