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Special teams, Niemi help push Stars to 3-1 series lead over Wild

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars are headed back home one win away from advancing to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Stars defeated the Minnesota Wild, 3-2, Wednesday night at Xcel Energy Center to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference first round series.

“Today was a typical playoff road win. We hunkered down at the end, it wasn’t pretty, and we got the results,” said Stars center Jason Spezza. “We’re excited to be heading back home with a chance to wrap it up.”

Special teams and goaltending were huge for the Stars in Wednesday’s win. The power play scored on both its chances and the penalty kill was 3-3.

“We wanted to really focus on that special teams battle,” said Stars forward Patrick Eaves. “I think going forward we’ve got to focus on winning that every night.”

Goaltender Antti Niemi, who backed up Kari Lehtonen in the first three games of the series, made his series debut and stopped 28 of 30 shots.

“I felt pretty good in the practice overall, the whole last ten days,” Niemi said. “It’s fun to be loose and relaxed and not think about it too much.”

“He’s a veteran goalie and he handled it great,” said Eaves. “We were really confident with him back there. He’s been working his butt off in practice all day and battling. He was ready, and I think it showed tonight. I’m pretty proud of him.”

Eaves and Ales Hemsky both scored on the power play for the Stars. Spezza’s goal late in the second period snapped a 2-2 tie and held up as the game-winner.


       Ruff on winning another close game
       Eaves on tempo and the power play
       The Rising: Game Four     
       Razor: Antti Niemi is a "sprinkle earner"

The Wild had killed off 12 of 13 Dallas power plays in the first three games, but were 0-2 on the penalty kill Wednesday. They missed on three power play chances as well.

“Special teams, they won that battle,” Wild forward Jason Pominville said. “They feed a lot off their power play and tonight was a good example of it. When you lose the special teams battle, you’re usually not going to win the game. That’s what happened.”

After a scoreless first period, the two teams combined for five goals in the second period and when it ended the Stars had a 3-2 lead.

Minnesota opened the scoring at the 5:01 mark when Erik Haula put a shot on goal off the rush, and Nino Niederreiter’s rebound bid went in off Pominville’s skate.

The Stars answered by cashing in on their first power play of the game. With six seconds left on the advantage, Hemsky scored on a blast with Colton Sceviour setting a screen in front of Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk, and it was a tie game at the 9:11 mark.

Just 63 seconds later, the Wild had the lead again. After poking the puck away from Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski at the Minnesota blue line, Charlie Coyle took a pass from Jason Zucker and scored off the rush to put the Wild up 2-1.

The Stars answered again on the power play. Kris Russell put a shot on net off the rush that Eaves deflected past Dubnyk, and it was a 2-2 game at 13:24 of the second.

“The theory behind [the power play] was just get bodies and pucks to the net,” Eaves said. “Russell made a great shot, and I got a stick on it.”

The Stars grabbed their first lead of the night at 18:59 of the second, just 22 seconds after killing off a Minnesota power play. Jamie Benn, who had just come out of the penalty box, got the puck to Jason Demers, whose shot on goal deflected in off Spezza to put the Stars ahead 3-2.

“I just tried to drive the net, and I gave [Demers] a call there, and he just fired one in. It went off my skate,” Spezza said.

That lead would hold up through the third period despite Minnesota outshooting the Stars 14-2 over the final 20 minutes. Niemi had a big save with five minutes left on a point-blank redirection by Haula. The Stars penalty kill came up big again late, stopping a Minnesota power play for the final 84 seconds of the game to preserve the 3-2 lead. Now, the Stars head back home with a chance to close out the series.

“This was a big game for us,” said Spezza. “We’ve been good in our building. We just have to get some rest here tonight, have a travel day tomorrow and then make sure we’re ready to go. We’re excited to get home again.”

Stars coach Lindy Ruff started to juggle his lines in the second period, moving Jamie Benn and Patrick Eaves onto a line with Jason Spezza. Cody Eakin centered Mattias Janmark and Patrick Sharp. Valeri Nichushkin moved to the fourth line with Vernon Fiddler and Colton Sceviour. The third line of Antoine Roussel, Radek Faksa and Ales Hemsky stayed together.

“Everybody has to be ready to play with everybody,” Eaves said. “Everybody enjoys playing with everybody. When the lines get mixed up, we just put our heads down and keep playing.”

*The Stars won a road playoff game for the first time since May 17, 2008 when they won at Detroit in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.

*The Wild outshot the Stars 30-22 and had a 56-51 advantage in attempted shots.

*Ales Hemsky led the Stars with 6 shots on goal. Patrik Eaves led the Stars with 7 shot attempts.

*The Stars were 2-2 on the power play and are now 3-15 (20.0 percent) for the series.

*The Stars were 3-3 on the penalty kill and are 10-12 (83.3 percent) for the series.

*The Stars won 27 of 70 faceoffs (39 percent).

*Vernon Fiddler won 5 of 10 faceoffs (50 percent). Radek Faksa won 7 of 17 (41 percent). Cody Eakin won 7 of 22 (32 percent). Jason Spezza won 4 of 16 (25 percent). Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu won 19 of 27 (70 percent). Minnesota’s Erik Haula won 12 of 17 (71 percent).

*Alex Goligoski led the Stars with 21:55 of ice time.

*Jared Spurgeon led Minnesota with 27:04 of ice time.

It’s back to Dallas for Game 5 of the series on Friday. The NHL announced that the start time for Friday’s game will be 8:30 p.m. Central time.

Jamie BennCody EakinPatrick Sharp

Mattias JanmarkJason SpezzaValeri Nichushkin

Antoine RousselRadek FaksaAles Hemsky

Colton SceviourVernon FiddlerPatrick Eaves

Alex Goligoski
John Klingberg

Johnny OduyaStephen Johns

Kris RussellJason Demers

Antti Niemi

Kari Lehtonen

Tyler Seguin (lower body)

Scratched: Travis Moen, Jordie Benn, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth

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 reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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