A quick analysis post before tonight's game...
I know it seems like forever ago, but remember the Dallas Stars' 4-0 start to the season? No? Well let me remind you. There was the utter dominance of the James Neal-Brad Richards-Loui Eriksson line, the reemergence of Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro as the most dynamic due on the roster, and the realization that Kari Lehtonen is the most important player on the team.
All of those factors played a role in the hot start, but it's easy to forget the role the fourth line played during that early stretch. The line of Brian Sutherby,Toby Peterson and Brandon Segal was a surprising asset for this team. Their physicality, energy and hard forechecking every night sent opponents the message that the Stars are a tough team to play against.
Fast-forward to Saturday night against the Avalanche. Segal was scratched in favor of Krys Barch. Brian Sutherby finally played after being scratched for two of the last four games. And the Barch-Sutherby-Peterson line ended up playing so invisibly on the ice through the first two periods that Mark Crawford decided to bench the trio for the remainder of the game.
Crawford's off and on benching of Segal and Sutherby and the benching of the whole line is an obvious coaching attempt to spark a fire under the fourth liners. The Stars have spent the last week and a half falling behind teams early, and while that can't be directly attributed to the play of the fourth liners, it's obvious that their lack of....well, any presence at all on the ice is hurting the Stars.
What the Stars ask of these guys is not much. They don't have to score often, or play on the penalty kill, or make clutch plays. The coaching staff simply asks the likes of Segal, Sutherby and Peterson to play a physical game on the ice, make their presence felt on the forecheck and to spark energy into the team with their limited ice time. So far the only fourth liner who has been able to do that lately is Krys Barch, and he gets the least amount of ice time of anyone on the team.
When the fourth line plays effectively, it gives Crawford the luxury of having four lines to roll out during a game, and know that the team won't lose a step when the last line touches the ice. Can the team survive with only three effective lines? Yes, but barely, and doing so is risky. They managed fine on Saturday, but couldn't survive against Toronto.
It's obvious that everyone wants to see the same brand of Stars hockey we saw in the first few weeks. To get back to such a level of success, it starts with your gritty, energy guys. So once the fourth line regains some of their mojo, the Stars might begin to see some more consistent success.