Twenty-six times this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins carried a lead into the third period. Twenty-six times, they won the game. When the Penguins took a 2-0 lead into the dressing room after 40 minutes of play, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion to everyone in the American Airlines Center…except the Dallas Stars themselves.
“We weren’t down in the room during the second intermission at all,” said Stars winger Brett Ritchie, who began the rally with a goal 3:40 into the final period. “We believed if we got just one goal it puts them on their heels and it’s a one shot game to get it into overtime. We took that approach and took it shift by shift. We were lucky enough to get a few bounces.”
Coach Lindy Ruff wasn’t necessarily pleased with the entire 60 minutes from his team, but liked the end result.
“I thought we played hard,” said Ruff. “We had a little bit of execution problem in the first two periods but we stayed with it. We got some pucks to the net and got rewarded for going there. I thought at the end of the night we played a hard game.”
Before they could defeat the Penguins, the Stars first had to overcome the loss of veteran defensemen Johnny Oduya, who was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks shortly before pregame warm-ups, and Jordie Benn, who was dealt to Montreal Monday afternoon. Without those veterans, the Stars’ younger defenders met the challenge posed by the reigning Stanley Cup champs.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to take a step forward,” said Ruff. “I thought they played the game on their toes. The skating part of the game was excellent from the back end. They’re going to get bigger minutes, they’re going to be in bigger roles and when you’re in the situation we’re in, it’s an opportunity to give some guys a more important role with the absence of the guys who have left.”
Penguins bench boss Mike Sullivan said of his club, “We just got outplayed.” The coach thought his team had “a lot of zone time” through the first two periods, though he would’ve liked to have seen more shots on goal.
Sullivan didn’t think the Stars made any drastic changes over the final 20 minutes, saying “Nothing other than ratcheting up their intensity level. They’re a team that likes to stretch the ice and come at you with numbers. They come at you with four guys and they work to stay above you and on the right side of the puck. We gave up a couple of odd-man rushes and for me, we can’t give those up.”
As Coach Ruff said, the Stars had “a little bit of an execution problem” through the first 40 minutes, and the problem manifested itself shortly after the opening draw. In the game’s first minute, Penguins winger Chris Kunitz found himself alone with the puck in the high slot, but fanned on the shot.
The line of Antoine Roussel – Jason Spezza – Brett Ritchie was most effective for the Stars early on, generating five of the team’s eight first-period shots on goal, but the trio couldn’t put one past Pens goalie Matt Murray.
Around the 7:30 mark, Stars netminder Antti Niemi, making his first start in two weeks, stopped the always-dangerous Phil Kessel from in close to keep the game tied. Less than three minutes later, however, Patric Hornqvist carried the puck behind the Stars net before dishing it out front to Evgeni Malkin, who put the puck in off defender Dan Hamhuis’ stick to give the Pens a 1-0 lead.
Late in the period, Niemi made another huge stop, denying defenseman Justin Schultz on the doorstep.
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Sidney Crosby’s line made a big push in the final minute of the period, giving the Stars all they could handle. Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel saw the puck hop over his stick, preventing an almost-certain goal. Shots were tied at eight apiece after 20 minutes.
Early in the second period, winger Curtis McKenzie drew a high-sticking call, sending the Stars on what would be their only power play of the game. The home team’s execution struggles continued; they iced the puck twice in the first 30 seconds of the man-advantage, drawing boos from the crowd. Tyler Seguin redeemed the power play somewhat by breaking through the Penguin defenders to get a shot on goal, but Murray made the save.
The Stars began putting more pucks on net after their unsuccessful power play and led 19-10 in shots at the midpoint of the period, but the Pens’ netminder stopped them all.
The visitors padded their lead at 10:40 of the second, when Guentzel knocked in a puck loose in the crease after Niemi’s initial save.
Less than two minutes after Guentzel’s goal, Radek Faksa went to the box for hooking and the Penguins went on their first, and only, power play of the night. The Stars had a good, aggressive kill and kept the Pens from extending their lead.
Crosby’s line continued to give the Stars all they could handle, pinning Jamie Benn’s line in the defensive zone for an extended shift late in the period, but the home team held firm. Though the Penguins led 2-0 after two, the Stars took a 21-15 lead in shots into the break.
As Coach Sullivan said, the Stars ratcheted up their intensity level for the third period. 3:40 into the frame, Murray finally gave up a rebound the Stars could use, and Ritchie’s hard work finally paid off.
The goal lit up both the team and the home crowd. Minutes later, Jamie Oleksiak kept the fire burning with two big hits on one shift.
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Near the halfway point, Spezza tied the game with a shot from the left circle. Murray made the initial save, but the puck ricocheted off Pens defenseman Brian Dumoulin and into the net.
Less than a minute later, Roussel completed the improbable comeback with a shot from almost the same spot as Spezza which beat Murray high glove side.
When asked after the game what he saw on his goal, Roussel, laughing, said, “Nothing. I just shot it.”
Niemi had to make one more big save, this one coming on a 2-on-1 with just over five minutes remaining, but the Stars limited the Pens’ chances the rest of the way. Despite pulling Murray for an extra attacker with 1:44 on the clock, the Penguins couldn’t find another goal.
The Stars improved to 3-1-0 in their last four games, while the Penguins fall to 2-2-1 in their last five.
PIT – Evgeni Malkin (26) assisted by Patric Hornqvist (19) and Carl Hagelin (15)
PIT – Jake Guentzel (7) assisted by Ian Cole (16) and Chris Kunitz (18)
DAL – Brett Ritchie (11) assisted by John Klingberg (26) and Antoine Roussel (15)
DAL – Jason Spezza (9) assisted by Jamie Benn (37) and Dan Hamhuis (14)
DAL – Antoine Roussel (12) assisted by John Klingberg (27)
THW Three Stars
First: Brett Ritchie (1 goal)
Second: Antoine Roussel (1 goal, 1 assist)
Third: Antti Niemi (18 saves)
New York Islanders at Dallas Stars
American Airlines Center – 7:30 p.m. CST on Thursday, Mar. 2
Broadcast channels: FS-SW, MSG+ 2
2016-17 Season Series: Jan. 19 – Islanders 3, Stars 0
Pittsburgh Penguins at Chicago Blackhawks
United Center – 8:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Mar. 1
Broadcast channels: NBCSN, SN, TVAS
2016-17 Season Series: First Meeting of the Season