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Stars open tough trip with strong effort

by Kurt Dusterberg
RALEIGH -- Dallas forwards Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson have the kind of chemistry that comes from lots of ice time together – and lots of video games.

Benn scored twice and Eriksson added three assists as Dallas won its third straight in a 5-2 decision Sunday against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Michael Ryder added a goal and two assists for the Stars, while Sheldon Souray contributed two helpers.

After combining with Eriksson for several scoring chances in a convincing win, Benn said the secret goes deeper than practice and games.

"We hang out almost every day and play video games," said the 22-year-old left wing. "We talk about life, but sometimes we play with each other in the video games."

All that time with the game console is more than just idle play. The two demonstrated a knack for getting the puck to each other Sunday on odd-man rushes. That's no fluke.

"We do practice mode a lot and we work on 2-on-1s," Benn said. "So it definitely feeds into our game out here."

Dallas is now 10-3-0, good for second in the NHL standings, trailing only the Penguins – a team they face Friday after a stop in Washington on Tuesday. The Stars are one of the surprise teams in the Western Conference, but rookie coach Glen Gulutzan feels there's a good explanation for the hot start.

"Last year they missed the playoffs by one point, so this year they've got something to prove," said Gulutzan, who coached in the ECHL for six seasons before taking over the Stars' AHL affiliate for two years. "So for me as a new coach, it's been easy going into that locker room when you've got 20 hungry guys."

Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen pushed his record to an NHL-best 10-1-0 with 30 saves. He was particularly sharp in the second and third periods, as the Hurricanes began putting more shots on net.

The Hurricanes, who have lost six of their last eight, fall to 5-6-3.

Vernon Fiddler gave the Stars a 1-0 lead 5:20 into the game. He skated through four converging Hurricanes players at the offensive blue line and laid the puck off for Eric Nystrom, who sent a wrist shot over Cam Ward's glove into the top corner. Nystrom, too, has had a fast start in Dallas, scoring three goals in eight games since being acquired Oct. 12 from Minnesota.

"Souray hit [Fidler] in a perfect seam," Nystrom said. "He just slid a great backhand pass to me after giving me all this time, and I just had to put it upstairs. It was a textbook neutral zone play."

Then with Hurricanes wing Alexei Ponikarovsky serving a penalty for boarding, the Stars power play went to work. Mike Ribeiro skated the puck into the right circle before finding Stephane Robidas uncovered inside the blue line. The defenseman's one-timer was his second goal of the season at 12:55.

The Hurricanes answered just 23 seconds later on a power play of their own. With Nicklas Grossman in the box for interference, Chad LaRose banged in a loose puck on the backhand to cut the lead in half. The scoring play started with Jeff Skinner's centering pass from the half wall that was redirected in the slot.

Dallas pushed the lead back to two goals in the final minute of the period. A strong Stars' forecheck culminated with Eriksson's blind backhand pass to Benn's stick in front of the net. When Hurricanes defensemen Joni Pitkanen momentarily vacated his spot in front of the goal, Benn beat Ward on the short side for a 3-1 lead.

"We're getting to know each other better and better as the games go on," said Eriksson, who has 15 points in 13 games. "He's such a good player to play with."

Ryder made it a 4-1 game with a close-in, top-shelf goal 3:48 into the second period. Hurricanes defenseman Derek Joslin, playing in his first game of the season, misplayed a puck to the side of the net, allowing Eriksson to quickly set up Ryder. That was enough for the Hurricanes to make a goaltending change, bringing in Brian Boucher to replace Ward.

After Benn and Eriksson were denied on a 2-on-1 midway through the period, the two forwards connected on a chance a few minutes later. Eriksson set up Benn with a crisp pass for his second of the game and a 5-1 lead.

"We've got two real cerebral players," Gulutzan said of Benn and Eriksson. "You've got two smart guys playing together and they're having a pretty good streak going now."

The Hurricanes' Tuomo Ruutu gave the Hurricanes a little life 2:03 into the third period, beating Lehtonen with a wrister from between the circles. It wouldn’t be enough for the Hurricanes, who were coming off a 5-1 loss to Washington that left Carolina coach Paul Maurice questioning why his team played without fire. The loss Sunday didn’t provide him with any answers.

"It's a physical man's game and we were trying to play on skill, and that's just not going to get it done for us," Maurice said. "We were soft on pucks all over the ice, lost every battle on the pucks that got dumped in. They came on the ice and beat us."

Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason stood up for Ward, who has given up nine goals in his last four-plus periods.

“He faces anywhere from 30-40 shots a night and he’s a world-class goalie," Gleason said. "We were blown out last game, and at the end of the day we can’t expect our goalies to bail us out every single game. We’ve got to come to play for them once in a while."

The Stars' stop in Carolina was the first in a four-game road trip.

"It's a really good start for us and it's always good to win, but we need it too," said Eriksson. "It's nice to play with confidence like we're doing now."
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