GLENDALE, Ariz. – Rob Klinkhammer was so wide open, with so much gaping net with which to deposit his first National Hockey League goal Saturday night, that when the red light went on he looked a lot like the late Jim Valvano at the 1983 NCAA Basketball Championships.
He was stunned. He was elated. And when he looked around, he was eerily alone – with no Phoenix Coyotes anywhere near him. Arms open and mouth agape, all he wanted was someone to embrace.
But when Klinkhammer's goal turned out to be the game-winner in a huge 2-1 win against the Dallas Stars at Jobing.com Arena, there was plenty of time for embraces afterward.
"I waited and worked my whole life for that moment. It's been a pretty long road," said the 26-year-old native of Lethbridge, Alberta, who was never drafted and toiled in the American Hockey League since 2007 – other than 15 NHL games with Chicago and Ottawa. "I was so open and I didn't think (teammate Boyd Gordon) was going to find me. I just knew he was going to shoot it.
"Then he slid it over and it shocked me how much time I had. It took awhile to find someone to hug."
Shane Doan scored his fourth goal in the last six games to give the Coyotes a 1-0 lead in the first. It was only the third time in the past 16 games that the Coyotes managed to score first – dating back to a 2-0 shutout against the Stars here on Feb. 2 – but it's a key for them. They are now 7-1-1 this season and 107-13-6 when taking a 1-0 lead since coach Dave Tippett came to Arizona in 2009.
Mike Smith, who had allowed 18 goals in his past four games, returned to form with 21 saves to help the Coyotes avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season and jump over Dallas and back into a Western Conference playoff spot.
The Coyotes blocked a season-high 29 shots in the game, eight of them by defenseman Zbynek Michalek and four during a 5-on-3 Dallas power play midway through the third period.
"Those guys made more saves than I did," Smith said. "I think ‘Z' did for sure. Those guys really buckled down. We talked about protecting our house for the whole 60 minutes and we did a really good job."
Kari Lehtonen made 21 saves for Dallas but the Stars, who had scored three or more goals in 13 of 14 games since being blanked here, struggled in the desert. Jaromir Jagr scored career goal No. 675 in the second period for Dallas to make it a 2-1 game, but Smith shut the door there and continued his mastery over his old team.
Smith is now 7-1-5 in 13 games against the Stars, who drafted him in the fifth round in 2001.
"You have to give them credit. They played hard defensively and they got in our lanes," Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan said. "We needed to be better about at net presence and getting shots past the first defender instead of getting them blocked.
"Down 2-0 against these guys, it's not easy to come back. But I thought we should have gotten a point."
The Coyotes took the coveted 1-0 lead on another great play by their budding star on the blue line.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson jumped off the bench and raced to the blue line to snag a Steve Sullivan drop-pass before it went offside. He did pirouette around Dallas' Eric Nystrom before finding Antoine Vermette behind the goal line. Vermette punched a pass to Doan at the lip of the crease and he pushed it by Lehtonen at 16:59.
Ekman-Larsson leads the Coyotes in assists (14) and points (17) and continues to do so with flair.
"There's only three or four guys in the League who can make that play and (Ekman-Larsson) is one of them," Doan said.
Then at 10:38 of the second it was time for Klinkhammer, who didn't get to Arizona from Portland of the AHL until after 3 a.m. due to weather and flight delays, to savor his moment to remember.
"We've been looking for an opportunity to get him in," Tippett said. "He's has such a good year in Portland (14 goals, 44 points). And playing where he did tonight, with Gordon and David Moss, is exactly the kind of player he is. He's a solid player, strong on the wall and gives us a good forecheck down there."
The Coyotes had all the momentum, but lost the handle when Klinkhammer was sent to the box for interference and Moss popped a puck into the stands 24 seconds later. With a 5-on-3 power play, Jagr beat Smith with a wrist shot over the shoulder at 18:19 for his team-leading 10th goal.
Amazingly, the Stars got another extended 5-on-3 under almost the same circumstances in the third period. With Kyle Chipchura already in the box, Vermette's diving clear attempt went over the glass and the Stars had another extended 5-on-3 for 1:29. But the Phoenix penalty kill smothered Dallas, allowing only one shot.
"That was our chance to get back in the game," Dallas defenseman Stephane Robidas said. "They stop us there and that gives them the momentum to win the game."