DALLAS – The Dallas Stars’ three Olympians sent their team into the Olympic break on a high note Saturday night.
Finland’s Kari Lehtonen made 26 saves to lead Dallas over the Phoenix Coyotes 2-1 Saturday night.
He received plenty of help from the Stars’ defence and got goals from Ray Whitney and Russia’s Valeri Nichushkin. Canada’s Jamie Benn assisted on Whitney’s goal.
The victory moved Dallas into the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference for the first time this season.
“We’ve come from a long way,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “You’ve got to give the guys credit for digging in.
“I thought if we got within three or four points at the break, we could be a serious contender. We’ve exceeded that.”
The Stars and Coyotes have identical 27-21-10 records for 64 points, but Dallas holds a tiebreaker over Phoenix, which fell to ninth.
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said his team’s position at the break is “probably about where we should be. I think we’re better than that, but that’s where we are.”
“I’m not worrying about that too much yet,” Lehtonen said of Dallas’ position in the standings. “It’s good that we’re moving to the right direction. We just have to keep going.”
He was more impressed by defeating Phoenix twice in five days to make up four points on the Coyotes.
“They were huge games both times. I really like it when we play well as a team.”
Dallas limited Phoenix to 27 shots, 13 in the third period. Lehtonen shut them out until Radim Vrbata scored on a power play with 15 seconds remaining.
The Coyotes had six skaters to the Stars’ four because Tippett had pulled goalie Mike Smith, who had 31 saves.
“Again (Lehtonen) was rock solid,” said Ruff, an assistant coach for Canada’s Olympic team. “He came up with some big saves. One when we were killing a penalty he went down low and made a glove save. He made a big stop on their breakaway when they were short-handed.
“The only thing I would like to have seen was for him to get the shutout.”
“We couldn’t generate too much offensively,” Vrbata said. “But I think (Smith’s) playing the way we know he can play. Hopefully, he’s going to stay like that and we can do a little better for him.”
Whitney scored just 2:10 into the game. Nichushkin scored at 19:26 of the second period, deflecting in a shot by Trevor Daley.
Dallas took the early lead when Whitney carried the puck into the Phoenix zone along the left side, skated into the slot and sent a wrist shot past Smith into the upper right corner of the net.
“It was kind of not much happening in the first period until we decided we didn’t want to back check on a play and give them the first goal,” Tippett said. “That was something we talked about as a group, if we get behind it’s going to be much tougher on us.”
The Stars ended the first period a man up and put three shots on Smith for a 7-4 edge in shots. One of Dallas’ shots was short-handed, as the Stars made it difficult for the Coyotes to get out of their end.
Midway through the second period, Dallas had two good scoring chances, but Smith gloved a high drive by Sergei Gonchar and stopped a tip-in attempt by Benn in front of the goal.
Nichushkin deflected Daley’s slap shot from the blue line for the rookie’s 13th goal with 34 seconds left in the second period for a 1-0 lead.
The goal was reviewed to see whether Nichushkin’s deflection was on a high stick.
NOTES: Whitney has seven points (four goals, three assists) in his last seven games against Phoenix. … Coyotes D Derek Morris (upper-body injury) was inactive. He was hurt during Phoenix’s victory over Chicago Friday. C Martin Hanzal, who missed that game because of illness, returned against Dallas. … The Stars have not allowed more than 28 shots in any of their last 11 games. … Vrbata has scored three goals in the last four games. … Saturday’s game was delayed briefly in the second period when linesman Ryan Galloway was upended in a collision with Whitney along the boards. Galloway stayed in the game. … The public address announcer saluted the five Coyotes and three Stars who will be competing in the Olympics. Smith, a former Stars goalie, received almost as strong an ovation as the Dallas players.