Jason Spezza missed the last Dallas Stars game due to illness, but he was feeling much better Saturday. Spezza scored three goals, including the game-winner with 1:00 remaining, as the Stars rallied for a 3-2 win over Nashville to finish the 2015-16 season as the Central Division champions and the No.1 seed in the Western Conference.
Shortly after the Stars secured the division title and top spot in the West with St. Louis losing in regulation to Washington, Spezza put an exclamation mark on the night, taking a pass from defenseman John Klingberg and scoring from the slot to snap a 2-2 tie at the 19:00 mark.
“I just tried to rip it as hard as I could, and got a good result,” Spezza said. “We wanted to win the game just to finish what we set off to do. You kind of raise your standards and want to win the division. It feels good to win that game ourselves, and you always want to be playing good hockey going into the playoffs.”
The Stars (50-23-9) won their first division title since 2005-06 and finished first in the West for the first time since 2002-03.
“It's a heck of an accomplishment,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “First, to finish on top of this division. There weren’t a lot of people that picked us to be there. To be honest, I didn't think we could get there ourselves, but as the year went on I thought we had a chance.”
The Stars will take on Minnesota – the second wild-card team in the West – in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Stars are expected to open the playoffs Thursday at American Airlines Center.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski. “These fans, this city [Dallas], they’ll be up for it. It’s just going to be exciting. The emotions are going to be high to start off on home ice. It’s going to be fun.”
“When you finish atop a tough division in the Western Conference it’s good for confidence,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “It’s the start of something new now, and now we can play some real hockey.”
Antti Niemi came up big in goal for the Stars Saturday, stopping 28 of 30 shots, including 14 of 15 in the first period when the Predators controlled play.
“I thought they could have gotten a couple more, but he made a couple of huge saves, and he made a breakaway save for us that was really big,” Ruff said. “Both our goaltenders have been a big part of where we’re at.”
Nashville finished the season (41-27-14). The Predators, who finished in the first wild-card spot in the West, will take on the winner of the Pacific Division – either Los Angeles or Anaheim – in the first round of the playoffs.
“I thought we played a real strong game, so that was good,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “We did a lot of good things tonight. Unfortunate at the end, a real tough ending, but if you’re looking at the performance right now, which I think is important going into the playoffs, I thought guys played really hard tonight, did some good things.”
The Predators scored 19 seconds into the game on a blast from the right point off the stick of defenseman Ryan Ellis. The Predators had some quality chances the rest of the period, but Niemi came up with several sharp saves, including a pad stop on a Filip Forsberg redirection, to keep the Stars within one goal heading into the first intermission.
“[The Predators] came out hard. Give them credit, they were all over us. Hard fore-check and they were putting pucks in the right places. They made us look slow,” said Goligoski. “We got through it, it’s about regrouping, even down 2-0, I think that second period we started to find it. For us, all year it’s been about sticking to our game, keeping going and see what happens.”
Nashville went on a five-on-three power play just under seven minutes into the second period and scored just after it turned into a one-man advantage. Calle Jarnkrok put home the rebound of a Filip Forsberg shot that hit the post at the 8:23 mark to put Nashville up 2-0. Spezza tied the game, scoring twice in under three minutes. He made it a 2-1 game with a blast from the right wing off the rush at 10:46 of the second. With Dallas on the power play, Spezza put home the rebound of a Jamie Benn shot to tie the game 2-2 at 13:05 of the second.
And it stayed a 2-2 game until Spezza’s heroics late in the third.
*The Stars’ 109 points this season are tied for fourth most in franchise history.
*The Stars hit the 50-win mark for the fourth time in franchise history and for the first time since 2005-06.
*The Stars’ 28 home wins were tied for second-most in franchise history. The 1998-99 team won 29.
*The 58 points (28-11-2) at home are tied for fifth most in franchise history.
*The Stars finished the regular season with nine wins in their last eleven games (9-2-0).
*Jason Spezza’s second goal of the night gave him 300 for his NHL career.
*The Predators outshot the Stars 30-24, and the Stars had a 68-63 advantage in shot attempts.
*Spezza led the Stars with five shots on goal. John Klingberg led the Stars with seven shot attempts.
*The Stars were 1-4 on the power play and 3-4 on the penalty kill.
*The Stars won 32 of 54 faceoffs (59 percent).
*Vernon Fiddler won 7 of 9 faceoffs (78 percent). Jason Spezza won 8 of 11 (73 percent). Cody Eakin won 9 of 17 (53 percent). Radek Faksa won of 4 of 12 (33 percent).
*Alex Goligoski led the Stars with 22:21 of ice time.
*Jason Demers played 18:39 in his first game back from a shoulder injury.
The Stars face the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Stars were 4-1-0 in the season series. The Wild were 1-1-3 in the season series.
Jamie Benn – Cody Eakin – Patrick Sharp
Valeri Nichushkin – Jason Spezza – Colton Sceviour
Antoine Roussel – Radek Faksa – Ales Hemsky
Travis Moen – Vernon Fiddler – Patrick Eaves
Alex Goligoski – John Klingberg
Johnny Oduya – Stephen Johns
Kris Russell – Jason Demers
Injured: Mattias Janmark (upper body), Tyler Seguin (Achilles), Brett Ritchie (lower body)
Scratched: Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak
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.