– The Western Conference playoff race has been a wild ride all season, but Dallas and Phoenix endured a true roller-coaster of emotions in the final four minutes Tuesday.
For the Stars, the final twist and turn was exhilarating. For the Coyotes, it was heartbreaking.
Hemmed in and shut down by Dallas most of the night, Phoenix rallied for two goals in a three-minute span late the third period and got even on Ray Whitney's tally with 37.7 seconds left in regulation. But with the game seemingly headed for overtime, Radim Vrbata's hooking penalty opened the door for Dallas and Jamie Benn's goal with 4.8 seconds left gave the Stars a huge 3-2 win to further tighten the wild West.
"For 55 minutes, we play a great defensive game, and then we fell off it a little bit," said Dallas forward Jamie Langenbrunner, whose goal at 12:47 of the third period gave his team what appeared to be a comfortable 2-0 cushion. "But this team has kept on going, kept on pushing through things all year, not matter what comes up. And we did it again tonight."
The Coyotes have lost four straight (0-3-1) on the heels of an eight-game winning streak, and ill-timed and ill-conceived penalties have been the common thread. Vrbata's hook on Mike Ribeiro behind the play with just 16 seconds left was the latest and the most costly.
"We've got to look at it right in the teeth and say what's going on," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "That's two games this week we've lost because of penalties. At some point, we've got to get it and we'll look it straight in the face and take the challenge. We better or it's not a good thing."
With Vrbata in the box, Phoenix tried to control the puck in the corner, but Ribeiro worked it free to Loui Eriksson for what became a 2-on-1 down low. Eriksson found Benn wide-open in the slot for a one-timer that gave the Stars their third straight win and moved them within two points of the fourth-place but wobbling Coyotes.
"It was a big goal and a great setup," Benn said. "We got a call that gave us a chance to make up for things and it worked out. We've won three games now, we've put that losing streak behind us and we're answering the challenge."
The Stars suffocated the Coyotes with playoff-style defense for most of the night, controlling the neutral zone and using goals by Tom Wandell and Langenbrunner to build a lead before Phoenix finally caught fire.
Defenseman Rostislav Klesla, acquired from Columbus on Monday, charged in from the point to bury Kyle Turris' feed from the right corner with 3:39 left to ruin Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen's shutout bid and wake up the crowd of 15,751 with his first goal as a Coyote.
Phoenix kept pressing, pulled goalie Ilya Bryzgalov in the final minute and got even when Shane Doan's centering pass found Whitney in the slot for a one-timer that tied it -- but the euphoria didn't last long.
"It's an awful way to lose a game," said Doan, who assisted on both Phoenix goals. "It doesn't matter that we came back. We might as well not even have done that."
Phoenix is still fourth in the West with 76 points but the Coyotes have lost their daylight against the rest of the pack. Calgary is one point back and Dallas is one of three teams tied with 74 points - and all three teams have games in hand over Phoenix.
Klesla, who hadn't played since before the All-Star break because of a knee injury, played 17 minutes and looked like his nickname - Rusty - at times. He appeared to screen Bryzgalov on Wendell's goal after defense partner Michal Rozsival coughed up the puck to Dallas' Toby Petersen late in the first period.
And in the final seconds, Klesla was caught behind the net on Benn's game-winning goal.
"He'll take some time to get up to speed and figure out how we do things here," Tippett said. "But it was a good start for him. He got thrown into a very important game and, not playing for awhile, I thought he meshed pretty well. But I think there's still better in him."