Centers of Attention
Stars Use Strength Up the Middle for Early Series Edge
Monday, 04.14.2008 / 4:55 PM / Feature
By Ken Sins
The checklist of positives for the Stars in building a 2-0 series advantage in their first-round matchup with the Anaheim Ducks has been lengthy.
Special teams have been stellar with a power play that has produced six goals in 13 opportunities and a penalty kill that has yielded one goal in nine Anaheim chances. Marty Turco has been stingy with a 1.00 goals-against and a save percentage of .956. Youngsters Nicklas Grossman and Matt Niskanen have joined veterans Philippe Boucher, Mattias Norstrom, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley to give the Stars a solid presence on the blue line.
Don’t overlook the contributions the Stars have received up the middle where top three centermen Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards and Mike Modano have outplayed their Anaheim counterparts on even strength and on special teams.
They’re hard to ignore, and they must continue that level of performance when Dallas hosts Game 3 Tuesday night at American Airlines Center.
“They’re all top-notch centers,’’ Stars captain Brenden Morrow said. “You expect that from them. Those three guys are winning battles, winning draws, playing with poise, they’ve been getting the job done for us.’’
Ribeiro leads Dallas scorers with a goal and four assists. Richards has a goal and two assists. And Modano struck for a momentum-changing power-play goal in the third period of Game 2 that put the Stars ahead for good.
Ribeiro is centering for Morrow (one goal, two assists), and Jere Lehtinen (two goals, one assist). Richards’ linemates are Loui Eriksson (really coming into his own with two goals and an assist) and Joel Lundqvist (two assists). Modano heads up a third line flanked by Stu Barnes (who’s turned in his usual standout two-way play) and Steve Ott (one goal, which proved to be the winner in Game 1).
Toby Petersen is in pivot of the fourth line with Niklas Hagman and Brandon Crombeen on the wings, a trio that hasn’t gotten a lot of ice time but has been effective when its number has been called. Hagman makes the greatest impact of the three because of his roles on the penalty kill and power play.
This is what the Stars were looking for when the series began, to have an advantage up the middle, to have their centers put the puck in the net, set up others, win the one-on-one battles, turn in strong defensive efforts, dominate on the forecheck and hold an edge in the faceoff circle.
“It’s been a key,’’ Modano said. “That middle position in playoffs is critical, to have good pivot guys who are reliable on both ends of the ice.’
Said Barnes: “They’re our go-to guys and they’ve been great all series.’’
Centers have played a major role on the power play as the Stars continued their regular-season success with the man-advantage against the Ducks. Dallas converted 23.7 percent of its power-play chances against Anaheim in the regular season, and the Stars keep punishing the Ducks for ill-advised penalties in the post-season.
Ribeiro was the Stars’ regular-season scoring leader and Modano is the all-time goal-scoring king among U.S.-born players. At the start of the series, the wild card was Richards.
Richards has gotten acclimated to a new team after arriving in a late-February trade with Tampa Bay. He produced five assists in first game with the Stars, becoming the first player in NHL history to record five assists in his debut with a team, but he quickly leveled off, collecting only two goals and two assists the rest of the way.
Now he’s demonstrating why Stars co-GMs Les Jackson and Brett Hull swung the deal, to increase the team’s depth up the middle.
“The addition of Brad Richards has been huge,’’ Ott said. “That was part of the move, to bring him in for the playoffs and have him with Modano and Mike Ribeiro. We’ve got three of the top centermen in the league. We’re very deep there.’’
Another key for the Stars: keeping their poise and not retaliating when the Ducks have tried to assert themselves physically. The Ducks have collected 36 penalty minutes to 28 for the Stars.
“I said before the series started that special teams would be one of the most important parts, and so far it has been,’’ Ott said. “For myself, I have to stay on that fine line that I talk about and not cross the line and cost our team penalties and hopefully draw a few.’’
Nobody on the Stars thinks they’re in the so-called driver’s seat despite the two-game edge, that a win Tuesday night will apply a knockout punch to the jaw of the Ducks. These are, after all, the defending Stanley Cup champions and they won’t go quietly.
“The knockout punch is when a team wins four games,’’ said Richards, who led Tampa Bay to the 2004 Stanley Cup as the playoff MVP. “It’s too tough against a team that I still believe is the team to beat if you want to move on and win a Stanley Cup. They’re the champs, they have pretty much the same team as last year. There’s a lot of work left to do. I’ve been in series before where we’ve lost two in a row at home and found a way to win.’’
There’s loads of incentive for the Stars. They’ve been first-round knockout victims in their last three trips to the playoffs, and a fourth consecutive early exit would be a crushing disappointment.
So they must continue to apply the same effort they gave in the first two games.
“We’re going to need everybody, all the guys and all the fans to get behind us and make it a tough place to play,’’ Turco said. “They’re a hard team to play against. This will be the hardest game.’’
Said coach Dave Tippett: “They’re going to be better so we have to be better. We have to meet their level.’’
-- Defenseman Sergei Zubov went through a light skate at Monday morning’s practice in Frisco, but he needs more recovery time from a hernia procedure before he’s ready for game action. “Very casual,’’ Tippett said. “He’s not on the radar yet.’’
-- The Stars’ “blackout’’ plans for Tuesday night - requesting the fans to wear black at the AAC - doesn’t bother the skaters. But for goalies used to sighting black pucks in a background of white-clad fans, it might be different. “I think goalies prefer ‘whiteouts,’’’ Turco said. “But both goalies are in the same predicament so all’s fair in love and war."
-- Tippett anticipates a raucous home crowd for Game 3. “It brings a great deal of energy in the building,’’ Tippett said. “When you’re on the road, you use the negative energy to spur you on and when you’re home you use the positive energy. That’s a part of sports. The things we did in Anaheim to win are the same type things we’ll have to bring at home to win."