With a 2-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday night at American Airlines Center, the Dallas Stars can breathe a sigh of relief heading into the 21/2-week Olympic break.
As of now, they are in the playoffs, holding the tiebreaker over Phoenix for the eighth Western Conference playoff spot.
There are still 24 games remaining in the regular season once the Stars resume play on Feb. 27, but it is a sweet way to head into the intermission after a 58-game climb.
“It’s been a long time since we were in that playoff spot,” Stars winger Ray Whitney said. “The guys played hard tonight. We knew we had a team that was coming in and got in late last night and in our second period you really saw that we got our skating legs under us and had a good second period.”
Whitney opened the scoring for the Stars early, carrying the puck into the offensive zone on a delayed penalty and zipping a wrist shot past the glove of Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith.
Dallas marched to a two-goal lead late in the second when rookie winger Valeri Nichushkin batted down a fluttering puck in front of Smith that floated over the goaltender’s shoulder and into the net. Stars defensemen Trevor Daley powered the goal with a shot from the point.
Phoenix managed to spoil Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen’s shutout bid with a goal by Radim Vrbata with 20 seconds remaining.
The Finland native, who will leave the country early today for Sochi, Russia, said hitting the break with the win was consolation enough.
“I was happy that it came that late so there wasn’t too much time for them to try to get the other one,” Lehtonen said.
Dallas posted victories over the Coyotes twice in the past five days to help boost them into the eighth position in the West. Whitney said catching Phoenix on the second game of a back-to-back was huge.
“I think we got a team that was in a vulnerable position tonight with a tough game against Chicago last night and then the travel,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t overlooking that and taking it easy.”
Stars captain Jamie Been, Lehtonen and Nichushkin will spend the next two weeks competing for gold while the majority of the team takes a brief reprieve.
The Stars overachieved expectations heading into the break, coach Lindy Ruff said, by claiming the eighth spot before the break. But the way the team breaks out of the gate after the Olympic intermission is almost more important, he told his team.
“Like Lindy was alluding to in the locker room, it’s very important that we come out of the break prepared to go because the team that stumbles coming out is probably the team that’s going to miss the playoffs,” Whitney said.
“We want to make sure we are ready to go and continue to play the way we have been the last two or three weeks.”