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Stars edge Coyotes, pull even in wild-card race

by Steve Hunt

DALLAS -- After taking five of a possible six points during a three-game road trip earlier in the week, the Dallas Stars wanted to head into the Olympic break on a high note. They got their wish with a 2-1 win against the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday at American Airlines Center.

The Stars (27-21-10), who also won 3-1 at Phoenix on Tuesday, moved into the second wild-card playoff berth in the Western Conference. Kari Lehtonen stopped 26 shots for Dallas.

"We've come from a long way," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "You've got to give the guys credit for digging in. I thought if we got three or four points at the break, we could be a serious contender. We've exceeded that. Those dark days of January we can put behind us.”

The Stars and Coyotes have the same record, but the Stars are in front of them because they have one more non-shootout victory.

Dallas received goals from Ray Whitney in the first period and rookie Valeri Nichushkin late in the second. The Coyotes spoiled Lehtonen's shutout bid when Radim Vrbata scored a power-play goal with 16 seconds remaining in regulation.

"They were huge games both times [against Phoenix]," Lehtonen said. "I really like it when we play well as a team."

Phoenix was on the second night of a back-to-back after blanking the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 on Friday but was unable to build on that big home win.

"It's a tough turnaround, but it's a big game," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "You've got to find ways to win. We just don't do things smart enough to give ourselves the best chance."

Whitney gave Dallas an early lead when he fired a wrist shot over the glove of goaltender Mike Smith 2:10 into the game. Whitney's goal was set up by defenseman Jordie Benn, who passed the puck to Whitney by sending it around the boards behind the Dallas goal before being sent hard into the boards by Phoenix center Rob Klinkhammer.

During the delayed penalty, Whitney rushed up the left side of the ice, cutting back inside in the Coyotes zone before beating Smith (31 saves) from the right circle for his seventh of the season. It was Whitney's first goal in seven games.

Dallas had a near-miss at 5:18 when Nichushkin rang the crossbar with a wrist shot from the high slot.

During a break in play late in the first period, Dallas' three participants in the 2014 Sochi Olympics -- Jamie Benn (Canada), Lehtonen (Finland) and Nichushkin (Russia) were honored and received a rousing ovation. Ruff, who will be an assistant coach for Canada, was also honored.

"I'm excited. From watching the ceremonies yesterday and some of the events, I'm ready," Ruff said. "Being around the best players in our League and having one of our players playing for Canada, I'm proud to have Jamie as part of our team and I'll see our other players in other games."

Smith delivered a big save at 7:32 of the second when he robbed Dallas defenseman Sergei Gonchar with his glove on a wrist shot from the left point. Smith also denied an attempted tip-in by Jamie Benn at close range at 9:30.

"He kept us in the game. He gave us a chance," Vrbata said of Smith. "We couldn't generate too much offensively, but I think he's playing the way we know he can play. Hopefully, he's going to stay like that and we can do a little better for him."

Dallas doubled its lead at 19:26 when Nichushkin redirected a shot by Trevor Daley past Smith for his 13th of the season. Daley's attempt from the high slot was deflected by Nichushkin; the puck hit Smith's right shoulder and fluttered behind him before crossing the line.

A video review showed Nichushkin's stick was not above the crossbar when he deflected the puck, and the goal was allowed to stand.

An outstretched Lehtonen made a nice stop on a low wrist shot by former teammate Mike Ribeiro at the near post 4:03 into the final period with the Coyotes on the power play.

"Again he was rock solid. He came up with some big saves," Ruff said of Lehtonen. "The only thing I would like to have seen was for him to get the shutout."

Dallas had a great chance to put the game away at 9:21 when Phoenix captain Shane Doan was called for interference and Ribeiro was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct. However, the Stars were unable to capitalize on the two-man advantage.

"We're an inconsistent team," Doan said. "I mean, that's what we are right now, so I think that's exactly what we are is inconsistent."

Phoenix forward Lauri Korpikoski had a breakaway with 1:38 remaining in regulation but he was slashed by Gonchar, which forced him to push the puck wide right.

"[If] the referee makes the right call and gives us the penalty shot the way it should have with 1:38 left, we still have a chance," Tippett said. "But it goes deeper than that with our team-tough turnaround, but still I'd like to see us play better than that."

Each team returns Feb. 27; Phoenix will play at the Winnipeg Jets, while Dallas hosts the Carolina Hurricanes.

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