Since exploding to a 11-3-0 start to the season the Dallas Stars have been fairly mediocre for most of the season. While it's been expected somewhat considering the limited roster and injuries to key players, the Stars certainly are hoping to find better consistency from game to game in the hopes of making the postseason for the first time in four years.
With a slew of games coming up against Western Conference opponents fighting with the Stars for playoff positioning, finding that balance and consistency is paramount to their postseason hopes. Part of that is trying to find better offensive balance in the lineup while also improving defensive responsibility; the Stars have become more and more top heavy as far as point production goes as the season has progressed, with the second line scoring just 19 goals this season.
Heading into the game against Nashville, the Stars got Stephane Robidas back from injury and coach Glen Gulutzan decided to roll with seven defensemen in the game. The odd-numbered forwards then provided the coach with the opportunity to shake things up on the top lines, swapping Loui Eriksson and Steve Ott and then finding more opportunities for Tom Wandell. The result was another solid team performance with balanced scoring up and down the roster, as well as one heck of a game from Mike Ribeiro.
"He's had some real good games for us, but certainly some of that elusiveness you saw tonight was on display," coach Glen Gulutzan said of Ribeiro. "I thought his compete level was real high, and I really liked his game. He's just not as good looking as he was before. We're just thankful it wasn't a broken jaw."
The story after the game was focused on Ribeiro's mouth injury and his toughness in coming back later in the third period to finish out the game, despite having a few teeth knocked loose from a Trevor Daley slapshot. Yet the real story lies in the subtle moves by Gulutzan to shake up his lines and try and spark some of his underperforming forwards, while still relying on his workhorses to carry this team forward.
For most of the season Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson have been paired together, the future of the Stars franchise together on one line and putting up big numbers game after game. While many discussed ways to not only help spark Benn back to being his old self again -- which included moving Ott to that top line -- there wasn't much discussion about the possibility of breaking Eriksson and Benn up. After all, for us it was just too tough to consider separating the two most offensively dangerous players on the team.
The fact is, however, that the Stars were facing a bigger and bigger rift in quality of play between the top line of Benn, Eriksson and Michael Ryder and the second line of Ott, Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow. Ott has been playing with Ribeiro for most of the season to not only provide defensive support but to take most of the faceoffs as well. What Gulutzan decided was that he needed to find better offensive balance and that if the Stars maintained better puck possession, especially on that second line, then the defensive issues wouldn't be as bad as some would fear.
Hence, Loui Eriksson was then swapped with Steve Ott. Eriksson plays the type of game that helps to free up Ribeiro, with great defensive responsibility as well as tremendous puck possession skills in both zones. Ott, on the other hand, has enjoyed tremendous success in the past with Jamie Benn and his ability to play along the boards should also free up Benn in some ways as well, who continues to enjoy an incredible surge the past few weeks.
Benn and Eriksson both responded with another multiple-point night and showed just how important they are to the offensive balance of the team. Eriksson played just as well on the second line as he had been with Benn and hopefully this is a sign of what could be ahead for the Stars are they continue to fight for consistency -- a phrase that comes up again and again with this team.
That's not to say we should gloss over just how great a game was played by Mike Ribeiro, who seems to be more and more underrated by fans and others around the league.
"It was pretty gritty. I don't know if people noticed, but he went down to block Shea Weber's shot late in the third period. We're up 4-1 and there's two minutes to go," said Stephane Robidas. "He showed a lot of courage. He came back and played a really good game. He's a big piece of our team. "
Ribeiro, like the Stars, has had an up and down season. There have been thoughts that his penchant for slowing down the play in own zone goes against what Gulutzan is trying to coach his team to do, but perhaps it's also been an issue of just being to allow Ribeiro to feel confident in his own game while out on the ice.
Is it as simple as putting someone like Eriksson next to him, who's puck possession skills should keep Ribeiro out of less defensively compromising positions? Perhaps, but there's no doubt Ribeiro looked incredible last night.
The final result was a great team win, where each and every line contributed and the defense -- aside from a few blown coverages in the first period -- played a solid game as well.
"If you look at our game tonight it was a pretty solid win," said Robidas. "It's a tough team to play. There are not too many teams that come in that building and win. It's a tough team to play against and you ask anybody, it could be one of the toughest teams to play against. We knew what we had to bring."
This is a team, despite the budding greatness of Benn and Eriksson, that needs a big contribution of nearly every player to win on a nightly basis. The foundation of the Dallas Stars this season is their team play, their "pesky" nature and how when all four lines are rolling they have the ability to beat any team in the NHL.
More importantly, we've seen a much more disciplined Stars team the past few weeks and it's making a difference in how this team is playing. The Stars are in control, for the most part, and not getting caught up in the extraneous emotions of some of the games they've played lately. Both Boston and Nashville went into these games with vendettas of some sort and the Stars responded by pretty much ignoring it all, skating away with dominant victories against both teams.
"Guys stepped up to the plate," Benn said. "We got a full effort from every player, and got a big two points. Ribeiro was one of our players that stood out and got us going there with two big goals. We need that from him. He's one of our best players and it's good to see."