One vital piece of the Dallas Stars has been missing over the past month, when the Dallas Stars climbed out of the muck to stand alone atop the Pacific Division. With the Stars riding a nine-game point streak headed into Saturday the return of Brenden Morrow was the story of the day, as the team captain took the ice with his team for the first time in 18 games.
Despite his struggles this season the return of Morrow was something many believed to be a big boost for a team now in complete control of their playoff destiny. The sellout home crowd roared its approval when Morrow was announced as a starter prior to the game, who took the ice on the second line with Jamie Benn and Steve Ott. In a tight defensive game, unlike Thursday's against San Jose, Morrow's lone goal in the second period would be enough for the win.
"It feels good," said Morrow about his first game back. "A little bit nervous I guess to make sure I didn't screw things up the way the team was playing and rolling. Kari [Lehtonen] made sure that I didn't do that sitting in the penalty box three times."
The atmosphere in the locker room before and after the game showed just how much Morrow's return meant to the team, especially as the Stars gear up for a run at the Pacific Division crown. With just 13 games remaining this season the Stars have given themselves a legitimate chance at not only their first postseason appearance in four years, but to make some actual noise one they're in the tournament.
"Huge, he's our leader. He's our captain and he's the guy that we've been riding his coattails for a long, long time," Steve Ott said. "We all remember the playoff that he had a few years ago and that's what we expect of him. The rest of these 15 games and the playoffs he needs to be that way. I'm pretty sure he's pretty eager for that challenge."
Morrow would score just one second after a 5-on-3 expired, hitting a one timer past Jonas Hiller off a brilliant Jamie Benn pass across the slot. It was a vintage Morrow goal and the celebration and jubilation of the goal was great to see from a player who has had a rough season compared to expectations.
"Those four footers with an empty cage are pretty easy to hit sometimes," said Morrow. "[Benn] made a great play. He sold it pretty good and was able to hit me back door for the empty net."
"Yeah, I thought early on he was getting his feet wet and as he went on, he was getting better then he got in some penalty trouble. But I thought it was a good first game for Brenden," Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan said.
The plan headed into the game was to play Morrow 10-14 minutes and to ease him into the game. Morrow, however, came out of the gates with his trademarked ball of energy style and added a definitive spark to a team that has needed that sort of performance from their captain. In the third period, however, it was apparent the game had caught up to Morrow as he was called for two penalties in the final 20 minutes.
"They felt better in the first and second period," said Morrow, when asked how his legs felt after the game. "I know it's going to take some time to get those reps for game conditioning. You can ride all the bikes you want but you can't face the NHL competition you're going to face in that sort of game. It's going to be a few games for the timing coming back, for the legs coming back but it felt pretty good for that first one."
The Stars keep rolling along and have now won five straight games for the first time since October. This is a different Dallas Stars team, however, than the one that opened the season. 9-0-1 in their past ten games and suddenly the hottest team in the NHL, the Stars are finding ways to win through hard work and perseverance. It's not always pretty but when teams consistently find ways to win, especially against good teams, the foundation is being built for something truly special.
After the game, Morrow talked about what he's seeing from the Stars now compared to what he saw the last time he was on the bench. Morrow's last game was against San Jose on February 2nd, a 5-2 loss that sent the Stars into 10th in the conference and would kick start a slide that seemed to spell the end to the Dallas Stars season. Now, 18 games and just over a month later, Morrow finds himself returning to a different team with a new philosophy.
"I think just the belief in the way to play to win," Morrow said when asked about what's different about the team. "Getting pucks deep, just believing that not turning pucks over that not making mistakes is the way to go about winning. We may have been guilty of being too fancy at times or trying to play for the crowd a little bit. I think it's just a simple, simple game and you dumb it down a little bit and just try to outwork the other team and for us it's been successful."
Perhaps this is the first time it's been publicly stated and it's good to see it coming from the team captain. The Stars weren't a bad team but they were inconsistent, and the desire to make things too complicated was their downfall more often than not. The Stars are a team that smother the opposition and on most goals they allow it's because of unforced errors, a sign that the foundation for a very good team is there -- but mentally there are some hurdles to get past.
Gulutzan has simplified the approach by the Stars and the turnovers and mistakes have reduced drastically. The confidence of the team has returned and we're seeing a blue-collar, hard working team that is vastly outperforming their payroll and have done so without their most electrifying player on the biggest stage.
It's fitting, then, that Morrow returns right when the Stars need him the most. Morrow was the MVP for the Stars in the 2008 playoffs and they'll need that magic once more if we dare to dream of a deep playoff run.