Minnesota Wild defenseman Greg Zanon, center, and Dallas Stars left wing Brenden Morrow (10) watch as Wild goalie Jose Theodore (60) deflects a shot during the first period of an NHL hockey game in St. Paul, Minn., Sunday, April 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
ST. PAUL, Minn. - The last game on the NHL's regular-season schedule came down to this: Dallas needed to win at struggling Minnesota, with a defeat of defending champion Chicago earlier in the day that left the last Western Conference playoff spot open.
Given a chance to the very end after a March slump that nearly finished them, the Stars couldn't take advantage.
Antti Miettinen's goal early in the third period against his former team gave the Wild the lead and kept Dallas out of the playoffs, with a 5-3 season-ending win over the Stars on Sunday.
Brenden Morrow could barely speak in a silent dressing room after the game.
"We were getting some pretty good scoring opportunities—a lot of just whacking and hacking around the net, looking for a bounce," Morrow said of trailing 4-3 after Miettinen's goal. "I don't think any of us were questioning whether we were capable of doing it. We were just wondering who the hero was going to be."
The Stars watched the Blackhawks lose at home to Detroit as a team, and the mood as they prepared to take the ice was "euphoric" and "excited," according to coach Marc Crawford.
Though the Stars weren't consistently sharp with the puck and they managed only three shots on goal in the second period, their energetic stretches led to plenty of quality scoring chances. Dallas was on a four-game winning streak, in position to catch Chicago and win the head-to-head tiebreaker after looking all but finished a week and a half ago.
The Stars went 1-5-3 in a nine-game stretch that ended with losses at San Jose and Los Angeles last week by a combined score of 9-1. They beat Anaheim, though, to stop the slide and then found a fortunate section of the schedule with games against non-contenders Columbus, Colorado and Minnesota to close out the season.
But the Wild played with plenty of pride, scoring first on a rare goal by enforcer Brad Staubitz and last on an empty-netter by Pierre-Marc Bouchard after the Stars pulled goalie Kari Lehtonen with 1:21 left.
"That's definitely something that drove us a bit," Staubitz said. "If we're going, bring someone with you."
Crawford refused to criticize his team, praising their effort and the injuries Morrow and others played through down the stretch. The Stars played six times in the season's last nine days and had seven of their last nine games of the road.
"I'm really proud of those guys. They just battled their tails off," Crawford said. "They kept giving forth the effort, and you look at it coming down the stretch: Nobody gave us much of a chance."
That's hardly solace for a team like this. The Stars have missed the playoffs only five times in 17 seasons since the franchise moved from Minnesota, but three of those are in the last three years.
"We just couldn't close the deal," said defenceman Stephane Robidas, adding: "Bottom line: We knew it wasn't going to be easy."
Loui Eriksson had three assists, and Brad Richards, Morrow and Alex Goligoski scored for the Stars, who led 2-1 after the first period. Early in the third with the game tied, Andrew Brunette drew Lehtonen to the side and made a perfect behind-the-net feed as Miettinen sliced forward from the opposite side for an easy tap-in.
Then came a thunderous roar from the crowd, followed by a series of "Let's go Wild!" chants to finish it out.
With almost every player on the Stars bench standing, the pace of the game was intense down the stretch until the Wild went into a defensive shell for the last few minutes, surely pleasing the Blackhawks while they watched on television a few hundred kilometres east.
With the Wild fans on their feet, finally finding a reason to cheer in another frustrating season for the local team, the buzzer sounded while Eriksson, Steve Ott, Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro stayed seated on the bench with their heads down for a moment before slowly leaving the area.
"It was in our control, and we didn't win," said Richards, speaking slowly with a blank look on his face. He added: "We put too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect at the end, with no room for error."
Jared Spurgeon and Colton Gillies also scored for the Wild, who missed the post-season for a thirdstraight time, the longest streak in their 10-year existence.
"It leaves you with a bitter taste, winning a game like this," Wild coach Todd Richards said. "It sure would be great to play 15 or 20 more like that."
NOTES: This was the Wild's first win over the Stars since Nov. 7, 2009. ... Spurgeon's power-play goal was the first allowed by the Stars in six games. ... Lehtonen, starting his 23rd straight game, gave up four goals on 22 shots. ... All four of Staubitz's goals came in the last 11 games.