Chicago Blackhawks coach Denis Savard watches his team during the second period. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
The Chicago Blackhawks were plodding again and seemed on their way to another loss in Denis Savard's first game as head coach. And then, everything changed. Tuomo Ruutu took advantage of an opportunity and scored with 1:48 left to give Chicago a 2-1 victory over Dallas on Wednesday night. Ruutu's shot trickled between goalie Marty Turco's pads after the Chicago centre started the play by stealing the puck from Dallas star Mike Modano.
The goal, Ruutu's fifth of the season and fourth in five games, gave the Blackhawks their fourth victory in 16 games and their first over Dallas since Jan. 20, 2002.
"I haven't had that many breakaways in my career," Ruutu said.
Modano thought he had been hooked behind the Chicago net and skated toward the blue line, expecting the whistle to be blown. Ruutu then poke checked him, leading to the winning goal.
"I kind of let up a bit," Modano said. "Any stick to the hands or across the hips is usually a call. If I knew there wasn't going to be a call, I would've gotten rid of the puck quick."
Instead, Ruutu quickly picked up the puck and gave the struggling Blackhawks a rare victory.
They fired coach Trent Yawney on Monday, replacing him with longtime assistant Savard. They promised to deliver more aggressive forechecks and pick up the tempo, but the game was more of the same the first two periods. The pace was slow, the opportunities on offence scarce until the third.
"I told our guys after the game it's not about me," Savard said. "I know they're happy for me, but they beat a great team."
The loss was the Stars' second straight, and both times, they blew a 1-0 lead in the final period. They allowed two short-handed goals Monday in a 2-1 loss to Detroit.
This time, Chicago's Duncan Keith unleashed a shot from the left point that nicked teammate Tony Salmelainen's stick on its way to the net. The goal, which stood after a video review, made it 1-1 with 8:17 left. Keith was initially credited with the goal, but statisticians gave it to Salmelainen after the game.
Dallas' goal came late in the first period, when Jere Lehtinen tipped in a pass from Loui Eriksson. The Stars' Marty Turco stopped 26 shots but suffered his first loss to Chicago. He is 11-1-1 against the Blackhawks.
"We had the lead in the third period; it doesn't matter how many goals," Turco said. "We were talking about finding ways, and we found ways to lose and it's not acceptable."
Nikolai Khabibulin had 20 saves for Chicago, which was 0-11-2-2 in its previous 15 games against Dallas.
Turco stopped Radim Vrbata's point-blank shot about 4:20 into the period, before Salmelainen tied it with the first goal of his career.
Then, Ruutu stripped Modano. And in the end, the Blackhawks could exhale.
"(Ruutu's) a horse," said Savard, who owns racehorses. "He's not as good as my horse, but he's good enough."
And the Blackhawks played just well enough to make Savard's debut a success.
Chicago altered the roster after finishing 26-43-13, the third-worst record last season, and the moves seemed to pay off during the pre-season. With more skill and speed, they started 4-2 before collapsing under the weight of injuries to forwards Martin Havlat (sprained ankle) and Michal Handzus (torn anterior cruciate ligament) and Khabibulin (broken finger).
The losses started piling up, and with his team in danger of missing the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 years, Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon decided to make some changes. So he fired Yawney, who was 33-55-15 in a little more than one season. Then, he turned to Savard, who joined the staff in December 1997 and whose No. 18 hangs from the United Center rafters.
"It's not about me," Savard said. "The guys played their guts out. You've got to give them credit. It's not just the fact we won. We like the win for sure, but we stuck with them the whole game."
Notes: Modano suffered a lower body injury in warmups and missed the start of the game. ... Dallas LW Brenden Morrow missed his second game with a groin strain. ... Blackhawks D Adrian Aucoin missed his second game with a pulled groin.