Ott contributing offense on Stars' top line
Friday, 01.30.2009 / 12:07 PM / Feature
By John Tranchina
There’s an old saying that whenever one door closes, another one opens.
Well, that could apply to the Dallas Stars this year and forward Steve Ott. When the door shut on captain Brenden Morrow’s season following his knee injury in November, another door of opportunity was opened for someone else, and although it took a while, Ott is the one walking through it now.
Filling Morrow’s old spot on the left wing of the club’s top line with center Mike Ribeiro and right winger Jere Lehtinen for the last month or so, Ott has flourished offensively and helped spark his talented linemates as well. And along the way, Ott has continued to provide the hard-nosed physical dimension he is known for.
With his second straight multi-point performance Thursday night in a 4-2 victory over Detroit, Ott now has a career-high three-game goal scoring streak going, during which he’s collected five points (three goals, two assists). He has also notched eight points (four goals, four assists) in his last seven games, helping the Stars to a 5-1-1 record in those contests.
With season totals of seven goals and 17 points in 31 games overall, Ott, 26 and in his sixth NHL season, is already edging closer to his career-highs of 11 goals and 22 points established last year. Certainly, part of his recent success has been his inclusion on a line with the crafty Ribeiro.
“The opportunity to play with those two guys, you’re going to get a lot of offensive chances,” Ott said, “and that’s something that we’ve been getting a lot of lately, creating puck time and creating those scenarios where we have scoring chances. For us, if we’re not scoring on them, then something’s wrong. It’s great to be able to contribute out there and help the team out as much as I can and for our line, that’s something that we’re looked to do now.”
“Since Ott has been with Ribeiro, I’ve thought the two of them have played very well together,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “They feed off each other pretty well. Ribeiro is skating very well, Ott and Lehts are workaholics.”
And with Ott’s rambunctious style resembling Morrow’s in many ways - the two finished fourth (Morrow, 183) and tied for fifth (Ott, 178) in the league in penalty minutes in 2005-06 - Tippett decided to deploy Otter on Ribeiro’s wing to see if he could provide similar results.
“That was the thinking with putting Ott there, as a similar kind of player,” Tippett acknowledged. “He’s bringing a lot of the same attributes to the game that Brenden does on that line - hard around the net, coming up with loose pucks. Ribeiro is great when he has the puck, so as many pucks as you can create for him, the better off you are. Otter, just every shift, he’s going hard, he’s doing the things that allows himself to be successful and the line is working well together that way.”
Ribeiro also credits his partnership with Ott for helping get his game back on track following a rough stretch after Morrow’s injury. Ott was out for awhile too, missing 11 games with a broken hand, but following his return to the lineup on Dec. 18, he and Ribeiro clicked together.
“He’s been huge for me and the line and brought my game where it’s supposed to be,” said Ribeiro, who has contributed seven goals and 20 points in the last 18 games, most of them alongside Ott. “He’s a guy who creates doubt in the defense’s mind, knowing that he’s going to come hard and finish his checks. He’s a guy, like Lehts, every shift is all-out, they create a lot of turnovers and he’s been a great leader for us, too, in the room. He’s a guy that likes to talk and makes sure everyone’s ready. Since those two guys have been back in the lineup, we saw a big difference and that’s what we need from them.”
“Ribeiro’s such a magical player that it’s almost something special every game and you know you’re going to get excellent opportunities every single shift,” said the 6-foot, 195-pound Ott, who has also piled up 98 hits this year, ranking third on the team, including a team-high five Thursday against the Red Wings. “Playing with him, it’s fantastic. The guy is a super-skilled athlete and when you’re playing with him, you just get open and hopefully he hits you with a pass where you can just tap it in.”
And soon after Lehtinen came back from a lower body injury on Dec. 20, he joined them and the trio has displayed impressive chemistry. Lehtinen also noticed the similarities between Ott’s role on the line and what Morrow provided.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of same things with Brenden, checking hard and hitting hard, and score goals and make plays,” Lehtinen said of Ott. “And you need those - on every line, you need a different type of player to fit in. It’s been good. It’s kind of fun finding chemistry and I think it’s there.”
Typically, the humble Ott, whose average ice time total of 16:27 is a good two minutes more than he logged last season, downplayed the flattering comparisons to his team captain.
“If I can be a quarter of the player that Brenden Morrow is, I think that we’ll definitely have a little bit of success,” Ott said. “And that’s just by working hard, competing, getting the puck to Ribeiro and being able to have a lot of puck time in the offensive zone and you’ll get your chances.”
His recent offensive exploits may surprise some Stars fans, but Ott, the Stars’ first-round selection (25th overall) in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, came into the league with a scorer’s pedigree.
He amassed 43 goals and 88 points in 53 games with Windsor of the OHL in his final season of junior hockey in 2001-02 and had 50 goals and 87 points in 55 contests the year before that. Ott also represented Canada in the 2001 World Junior Championships, registering two goals and one assist in seven outings.
Ott admits he’s always wanted to incorporate more of an offensive aspect to his game in the pros, but until now, had only shown intermittent flashes of those skills.
“I think it’s always something I had that just would never leave,” Ott said. “It’s playing with confidence, it’s playing with a little bit more of a swagger than I would before. It’s the opportunity to play with great hockey players, too, with Ribby and Lehts. It makes the game just so much easier out there. The hard work and all the other effort that the line puts in, it gets us scoring chances and it’s nice to contribute. I always wanted to envision myself playing this way and this is kind of the route that I want to take.”
“It’s opportunity, too,” Tippett pointed out. “He’s never had an extended period of time on the top line, but the injury to Brenden has got him that opportunity and he’s making the most of it.”
Despite his frequent appearances on the scoresheet lately, Ott knows that he still needs to keep the elements in his game that have served him well as an NHLer to this point - namely his aggressive, mouthy, agitating style that has an uncanny knack for getting under opponents’ skin.
“I still want to have the compete, the hard areas in my game and the physicality part will always be there with me,” vowed Ott, who has compiled 69 penalty minutes this season, good for third on the Stars, although he’s had just 10 in the last 13 contests. “But it’s definitely just nice to contribute.”
One interesting factor in Ott’s recent performance is that with the broken hand he suffered on Nov. 22, he continues to wear a cast on the ice and has been unable to throw punches, so he can’t fight and probably won’t for the rest of the year.
“The hand’s still pretty banged up,” he revealed. “Once you put nine screws and a plate in there, it doesn’t matter - it’s pretty messed up for now. By the end of the season and next year, maybe we’ll think about fighting again and doing the rest of that stuff, but for now, I’m playing with a cast, so I can’t really do that.”
The result has been perhaps a more focused and well-rounded player, one who hits hard, drives the net and camps out in front, allowing him to make more skillful plays on pucks around the crease. A prime example of that was his nifty, back-to-the-goalie deflection of Brad Richards’ slap shot that gave Dallas a 1-0 lead Thursday night. It was Otter’s third power play goal of the season - and third of his 304-game career - with all three coming in the last seven contests, dating back to Jan. 12.
“Otter’s a big part of it,” Ribeiro said of his - and the team’s - recent success. “He’s a guy with less skills than Brenden but kind of the same work ethic, a guy who crashes and forechecks well. I think he’s been a big part of it. Hopefully we can keep going with that.”