The Stars had seemingly righted their ship with the consecutive wins over Detroit and Boston. But not all was well in North Texas. Defenseman Sergei Zubov left midway through the second period of the Boston game because of a knee injury sustained when Bruins defenseman Dmitri Khristich took a kneeing penalty.
Lehtinen also hurt his hand in the second period of the Bruins game when he was slashed, but continued to play on. He was later diagnosed with a broken thumb that would keep him out of the lineup for the rest of the month.
Zubov wound up being fine, but with Lehtinen out, defenseman Darryl Sydor replaced the Finnish winger on the top triumvirate. Defenseman Sergey Gusev was subsequently recalled from the Michigan K-Wings of the IHL to replace Sydor.
Gusev had impressed Hitchcock with a strong preseason while Sydor was absent due to his contract impasse. Now back with the big club, it didn't take long for him to make an impact.
In his first career NHL game, Gusev scored the winner and added an assist in the Stars 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Nov. 20. He was able to one-time a shot from the right point that eluded New York goalie Wade Flaherty midway through the second period to give the Stars a 3-1 lead.
"Gusev moved the puck pretty well," Hitchcock said. "He did an exceptional job in the transition game and he did a very good job of finding open people. Tomorrow against St. Louis will be a different game for him. But tonight was certainly very good for his confidence."
Sydor also contributed while trying to keep up the pace with linemates Hull and Modano throughout the evening. His late third-period goal sealed Dallas' third straight win.
"Playing with those guys, all I wanted to do was keep it simple," he said. "They are tremendous talents that have an awful lot of skill and are going to make great plays. I just wanted to pick up the garbage and help them out any way I could."
Hull, though, was having a hard time savoring his two assist night. As the team prepared to travel to St. Louis for his homecoming game against the Blues the following night, the right winger began complaining of pain in his mid-section.
|Guy Carbonneau |
He initially felt the discomfort in the first period after getting wedged between a stick and the boards in a scrum behind the net, and was soon diagnosed with a bruised kidney that would force him to miss the much-anticipated return to St. Louis, as well as the next game against San Jose.
"I know he's a player you either like or hate, but he did a lot of good things for this organization and this city," Stars center Guy Carbonneau said. "I know it would have been fun for him to come back and get a standing ovation."
Missing two-thirds of their top line, the Stars jumped out to a 3-0 lead over the Blues, but were soon overwhelmed by a desperate St. Louis team that sent the game into overtime with three unanswered goals in the final 22 minutes of regulation.
"They outchanced us in the third period and they came at us a little more," Carbonneau said. "We quit skating and a team like St. Louis, they can smell that, and they took advantage. We can be so good for 40 minutes, then we think it's easy and we slow down."
"I'm as upset and disappointed as I have been all season," Hitchcock added after seeing his team fall out of first place in the Pacific Division for the first time this season.Giving Thanks For Some Wins
With their coach fuming, the Stars began Thanksgiving week knowing full well they needed to increase the tempo and tenacity in their next start against division-rival San Jose. The Sharks entered the game as the only team in the league who hadn't secured a win on the road (0-3-3), but their dominant performance earlier in the month over Dallas gave the Sharks some confidence as they took the Reunion Arena ice on a Monday night.
Surprisingly, it was the Sharks that busted out of the gate to draw first blood. Bill Houlder and Ron Stern each netted power-play goals in the first period to give San Jose a 2-0 edge after 20 minutes. But in the second, Dallas took the lead on goals by Hatcher, Nieuwendyk (his team-leading sixth of the season) and tough-guy Grant Marshall, whose fourth goal of the year midway through the middle stanza turned out to be the winner.
The Sharks nearly sent the game into overtime, but Stern's potential tying goal with 22 seconds remaining was disallowed after a video review showed teammate Stephane Matteau's skate in the crease when Stern scored.
"I don't understand the rule," a distraught San Jose coach Darryl Sutter whined afterwards. "Whoever made up that (bleeping) rule never played the (bleeping) game. We get (bleeped) every time we come down here and it's always on one (bleeping) goal. We had more chances than I thought. Both teams played very hard but it's a just a matter that we got (bleeping) screwed."
"I'm loving it right now," countered defenseman Richard Matvichuk. "It's a straight forward rule, and if somebody's in the crease, there's no goal. We've been in situations before where it has not gone our way and we just had to deal with it."
Dallas extended its unbeaten streak to five games (4-0-1) while running its league-best home record to 8-1-1.
|Richard Matvichuk |
The Stars welcomed Hull back when they hosted the New Jersey Devils on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, but the Atlantic Division-leading Devils scored three times in the first period en route to a 5-2 shellacking. Adding insult to another injury, Hull was forced out after sustaining a groin injury in the second period.
Brian Rolston scored just 62 seconds in on the game's first shot, Jay Pandolfo made it 2-0 just 2 1/2 minutes later, and the rout was officially on when Sergei Brylin scored before the game was even eight minutes old.
"Derian (Hatcher) and I are leaders of this team and we were awful on our first shift," Matvichuk said. "We are the two individuals that are supposed to set precedents and what we do reflects on the whole team. Tonight we were just awful and I am as much to blame as anybody. None of those goals in the first period were Eddie's fault."
Belfour was lifted in favor of backup Roman Turek after the Brylin goal, having seen just five shots before mercifully getting yanked.
"Eddie couldn't have stopped any of those goals," Hitchcock said. "They were bang-bang plays and he didn't have a chance. The reason I took him out was to give him a break. We were really fighting for our lives at that time. Right now, we are just a very sloppy hockey club that is not paying attention to many details."
Hitchcock's message was heard loud and clear, as his voice boomed throughout the Dr. Pepper StarCenter in Irving during a Thanksgiving Day practice.
The next night, the Stars took out their aggression on the befuddled Washington Capitals. With Hull and Lehtinen both out, Modano led the Stars' most complete effort of the year by scoring twice and adding an assist. Hatcher also scored a pair of goals, and Belfour stopped 15 shots to pick up his first shutout of the season -- and 41st of his career -- in an impressive 4-0 win.
"It was one of our better games of the year," forward Jamie Langenbrunner said. "It was time to take a very long look in the mirror."
Despite being in second place behind division-leading Phoenix, the Stars were an impressive 12-4-3 at the end of November, and spirits were once again on the rise in Valley Ranch.
Not only was the team coming off their best showing in the win over Washington, the boys were also in the midst of enjoying a four-day layoff. Plus, they were about to get back Lehtinen, who finally participated in his first full practice on the final Sunday of the month, two weeks after breaking his thumb.
They certainly had the look of a club about to make December a month to remember.NEXT MONTH: Installment 3 -- The Stars move closer towards a franchise mark, while two grizzled veterans keep on grooving.