DALLAS — It was just like old times at American Airlines Center, and it was nothing like old times.
In their first home playoff game since May 19, 2008, the Stars feted a sellout crowd of 19,120 with a 3-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks. And while there have been plenty of playoff wins in Stars history, this Game 3 victory that cut the Ducks’ series edge to 2-1 came before a sea of Victory Green with a new cast of Stars.
Kari Lehtonen made 37 saves to record his first ever playoff victory. Valeri Nichushkin recorded his first ever playoff goal. Jamie Benn tallied his second goal in just his third playoff game. It was the perfect image of “A New Star Rising.”
“It’s a great feeling to be back and have this atmosphere,” said defenseman Trevor Daley, the only Stars players remaining from the 2008 team. “These guys deserve it. They’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
Looking on were owner Tom Gaglardi and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as the Stars took a huge step forward and made a significant statement.
“This team needed to experience a win,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “That group in there needed to experience what it’s like to win in the playoffs. Winning in the playoffs is different than in the regular season. I thought we held up pretty good. In Kari’s case, tonight he made a statement where he was determined to be better than he was previously in this series.”
Benn cashed in the first chance just 10 seconds out of the penalty box, and he clearly drew energy off the penalty kill that wiped his late hooking call off the board in the first period. The Stars captain started across the ice, but then wheeled down the right wing after Trevor Daley and Shawn Horcoff made nice plays in transition. Horcoff put a shot on goal that Anaheim goalie Frederik Andersen stopped, but the rebound went straight to Benn, who slammed his second goal of the playoffs into a yawning cage with 35.0 seconds left in the first period.
Lehtonen played in two games in 2007 and lost both. He entered Game 3 with an 0-2 record, a 3.57 goals against average and an .870 save percentage. So with the game as close to must-win as the Stars were going to get. Lehtonen answered the bell wonderfully, and helped push Dallas to 11-2-1 in their last 14 home games.