Stars captain Jamie Benn and goaltender Kari Lehtonen talked about gaining confidence from their Olympic experience, and that was on display Thursday night. Benn scored a goal and chipped in two assists and Lehtonen stopped 29 of 30 shots as the Stars defeated the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-1, at American Airlines Center.
Two of Benn’s points on the night came shorthanded, one a highlight reel goal and the other a strong rush up ice that resulted in what proved to be the game-winning goal by Brenden Dillon. It was an impressive performance for Benn, who missed a couple shifts because he wasn’t feeling well, but returned to finish the game.
“He’s proving every day, every game that he is one of the best players in the world,” Dillon said. “We knew it all along, but I think with the Olympics and how well he has been doing this year and in past years, he just keeps getting better and better.”
Lehtonen was sharp in goal for the Stars, making several key saves to keep Carolina from getting back in the game after the Stars took an early lead.
"I thought (Lehtonen) gave us some real big saves, timely saves,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “He kept them off the board for the first 40, and in the third he made a few more quality saves.”
The win pushed the Stars, who are 7-1-2 over their last ten games, back into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 23 games remaining in the season.
“It’s the situation we want to be in,” said Benn. “We don’t want to be looking at the scoreboards after games and hoping teams lose or hoping teams win. It’s up to us in here to put ourselves in a good situation.”
The Stars showed little rust from the long break, scoring twice in the first 6:13 of the game to take a 2-0 lead.
“I didn’t see any (rust),” said Ruff. “I thought my coaches did a heck of a job getting the team ready. The practices just before I got back were very important. We skated well and we probably had upward of ten or eleven “A” chances and I thought their goalie made some very good saves.”
The Hurricanes lost their second straight game out of the Olympic break and are now seven points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“We weren’t happy with our first period tonight,” said Carolina coach Kirk Muller. “When you give a team like that the opportunity and advantage it’s hard to come back and for whatever reason we didn’t have enough guys ready to go to start this game and we just chased things after that.”
The Stars struck 3:18 into the game to take a 1-0 lead. Valeri Nichushkin setup Tyler Seguin, who scored off a one-timer from the left circle with the Stars on the rush.
The Stars made it a 2-0 game just under three minutes later when Brenden Dillon joined a shorthanded rush by Benn, got the puck, made a nice stickhandling move to get an open look and beat Carolina goaltender Anton Khudobin with a wrist shot.
“Any time Jamie Benn gets going up the ice you know you have a good chance to score a goal,” Dillon said. “They have to respect his speed and skill. They collapsed on him, the puck squirted to me and I’ve seen Benny do it millions of times, so I thought I’d try it and worked out well.”
Khudobin came up with some big stops early in the second to keep the Hurricanes within striking distance. Lehtonen had some sharp saves to keep the Stars up by two. Benn had a chance to extend the lead midway through the period when he came out of the penalty box and got a breakaway, but Khudobin turned away the chance to keep it a 2-0 game.
The Stars were finally able to extend the lead late in the second, striking again shorthanded. Benn got the puck in his own end, skated into the Carolina zone, split defensemen Justin Faulk and Andrej Sekera and slipped the puck past Khudobin to give the Stars a 3-0 lead with 1:25 left in the period.
“He’s a special player,” Lehtonen said of Benn. “Every once in a while he comes out with some magic, great skating and makes highlight reel goals and great passes. That’s his game. I am glad we have him.”
Carolina got on the board 2:42 into the third when Eric Staal scored from a sharp angle to make it a 3-1 game.
There was a rash of penalty minutes three minutes later after Stars forward Antoine Roussel ran into Khudobin. Roussel was given a major penalty for charging and a game misconduct. He also picked up a fighting major after Carolina defenseman Ron Hainsey went after him. Hainsey picked up an instigator, fighting major and game misconduct.
That left Carolina with 3:00 of power play time. But Carolina’s Tuomo Ruutu took a high sticking penalty, putting the Stars on a brief power play, and leaving the Hurricanes with less than two minutes of power play time. The end result was the Stars still had a 3-1 lead when both teams were back at even strength midway through the period.
Stars center Eakin rounded out the scoring with an empty-net goal in the final minute to make it a 4-1 final score and give the Stars solid win in their first game out of the break.
"I'd give our team an A-plus rating for their skating, their compete level,” said Ruff. “When we had to get down and dirty and block shots and compete, we were right there in the trenches.”
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.