Stars' physical win over Coyotes sets up Western Conference showdown against St. Louis
The stage is set.
After dispatching the Coyotes, 3-2, on Wednesday night, the Stars once again pulled into a first-place tie with St. Louis atop the Western Conference, setting up a Friday night showdown with the Blues.
"You obviously want to climb to the top, but you want to push yourself away from the bottom there," Stars goaltender Ben Bishop said. "It's a good opportunity to do both. It should be a fun atmosphere. It always is a good atmosphere down here when we play the Blues. ... It'll be a fun one to play with the magnitude of it, but it's just two points at the end of the day."
Jamie Oleksiak scored the game-winning goal with 8:22 left in the third period to extend the Stars' point streak to six games. Corey Perry and Radek Faksa also scored power-play goals as Bishop made 39 saves. Dallas has points in 10 of the 12 games since the All-Star break.
Before Oleksiak ripped a slap shot to win the game, Stars captain Jamie Benn was ejected from the game for boarding Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the second period. Benn was assessed a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct after he crushed Ekman-Larsson.
To even be entering Friday with a shot at first in the West is an accomplishment for Dallas after the 1-7-1 start and the mid-December firing of Jim Montgomery. But Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness maintains the Stars haven't accomplished anything.
"Until we get an 'x,' we expect our intensity to be the same as everyone else's," Bowness said. "You can't look at a team and 'They're fighting for a spot.' Well, so are we. ... We haven't done anything yet. We haven't done anything yet. We haven't."
The temperature of the game got ratcheted up in the second period, culminating with Benn's ejection. Roope Hintz rode Nick Schmaltz into the boards, causing a stoppage of play. Alex Goligoski upended Hintz on the next shift. Corey Perry cross-checked Goligoski. Then Benn nailed Ekman-Larsson.
After a contentious and confrontational meeting in December in Arizona, the Stars knew the rematch at the American Airlines Center could also feature fireworks.
"They took some runs at us and that's part of the game, the game within the game," Bowness said. "We responded, we retaliated. They kind of woke us up with their hits and then we started to play really well after that, so we expect that kind of game tonight."
The main feud in December was Benn vs. Ekman-Larsson. In that game, Ekman-Larsson hit Benn with a blindside open-ice hit, and Benn finished the game by going after Ekman-Larsson. Benn's physicality surged through the Stars, but now his most recent hit on Ekman-Larsson could potentially cost him games due to a suspension.
"That's his type of game," Bowness said of Benn. "He's a very physical player and with the scheduling and everything today, it's hard for any player in this league to be physical and on top of that every night. It's humanly impossible.
"Sometimes, you get in those games, you may not feel like it. Sometimes, the other team helps you get into it with hits. That's the type of player Jamie is and if they came out physical, you know Jamie Benn's going to respond. Usually, when he responds, the rest of our team is right behind him."
Briefly: Stars forward Alexander Radulov returned to play Wednesday against Arizona after missing three games with an upper-body injury. Radulov played on a line with Mattias Janmark and Joe Pavelski.
Radulov's return meant the end of Jason Robertson's first NHL stint. He played all three games in Canada before he was sent back to AHL affiliate Texas on Monday. He had one assist Thursday in Toronto, and didn't play the last half of the third period in Ottawa after he was on the ice for a goal against.
"It's good for him to come up so when coaches are telling him 'You've got to learn how to play without the puck,' now he gets it," Bowness said. "Now he understands, it's a little clearer picture for him. The brief stint up here will help him for that."
-- Defenseman Andrej Sekera re-entered the lineup for Roman Polak on defense, continuing the rotation the veteran defensemen have recently been part of. Polak hasn't played consecutive games since Feb. 7 and 8; Sekera, since Feb. 3 and 4. Bowness said it was a strict rotation and not based on matchups against the opponent.
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