GLENDALE, Ariz. – The proud fathers huddled near the Dallas Stars’ dressing room, smiling, laughing and telling stories while wearing replica green sweaters of their sons’ team.
The Stars not only made their dads happy Tuesday night, they secured a key victory that improved their playoff chances.
Antoine Roussel scored the go-ahead goal early in the third period, Kari Lehtonen stopped 26 shots and the Stars beat the sluggish Phoenix Coyotes 3-1 in front of 27 dads who took advantage of the franchise’s father road trip.
“This is a little extra bonus,” Lehtonen said of having his pop in the stands. “It’s nice to have him here.”
Shawn Horcoff also scored and Ryan Garbutt added an empty-netter for the Stars, who won their second straight game and moved within one point of Phoenix and two of Vancouver, which holds the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Not bad for a team that less than a month ago was mired in a six-game losing streak.
“It was a big win for us tonight,” Garbutt said. “We had the dads in town and it was a fun game for the guys to play. It’s kind of nice for the guys to be on a roll right now.”
Antoine Vermette scored his eighth goal in nine games and Mike Smith made 37 saves for the Coyotes, who were thoroughly outplayed in the final two periods despite the game’s importance.
“It was really disappointing,” Vermette said. “We have to find a way to win these games.”
Tied at 1 entering the third period despite a 31-18 edge in shots, the Stars took advantage of a bad line change and Kyle Chipchura’s turnover at centre ice. The sequence ended with Roussel’s wrist shot from between the circles that beat Smith on the glove side at 3:25 for his ninth goal.
“We turned over a lot of pucks and in the 1-on-1 battles just didn’t do enough to give ourselves a better chance to win,” Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said.
It was another solid defensive effort for the Stars, three nights after blanking NHL-leading Anaheim 2-0 at the beginning of a three-game trip.
When they arrived in Phoenix, so did most of the players’ fathers. They watched the Super Bowl together Sunday and visited a dude ranch Monday.
The fathers then had great seats for Dallas’ fifth win in seven games and a big victory against another team jockeying for a playoff spot.
Phoenix entered the night in ninth place in the West with 62 points, while Dallas was 10th with 59. With eight teams going to the playoffs and Vancouver losing at Boston earlier in the evening, Tuesday’s meeting and Saturday’s rematch in Dallas meant an opportunity to create space and clinch the season series.
“We talked about this morning that two teams that are pretty similar and tight, somebody’s going to take advantage of an opportunity and win a game,” Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said. “And I thought we were able to push through.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, there was little to separate the teams in the first period. And while the Stars had better chances early in the second, it was Vermette who continued his hot streak with a breakaway goal midway through the period to put Phoenix ahead.
Vermette won the puck along the boards at centre ice and skated in alone, sending a backhander past Lehtonen at 9:18 to make it 1-0. It was Vermette’s team-best 21st goal.
Shortly after Vermette nearly scored another breakaway goal while short-handed, and with the Phoenix crowd booing what it felt should have been a Dallas penalty, the Stars tied it.
Horcoff’s no-look backhander from the slot on the power play slipped past Smith with 7:28 left in the second period.
Dallas controlled the final period, with Garbutt’s empty-net goal with 26.7 seconds left putting it away and setting up a happy postgame reunion with the dads.
“I think the ones whose sons’ scored are especially proud of them,” Ruff said. “And they get to see it live. That part is good.”
NOTES: The Stars improved to 12-2-2 against Pacific Division opponents. … Vermette’s career-best, eight-game point streak matches Shane Doan’s for the longest of the season for the Coyotes. … Vermette (367) and teammate Keith Yandle (359) extended the third- and fourth-longest active consecutive games played streaks in the NHL. … The Coyotes have won consecutive games just once since mid-December.