Last night, the Dallas Stars ran their latest improbable streak of good play to four wins in their last five games. Even the loss – Tampa Bay’s wild third-period escape – could easily have swung in the Stars’ favor. It’s a stretch of games that’s seen Stars fans treated to Tyler Seguin’s triumphant two-goal return, stunned by yet another low-bridge hit to Trevor Daley, and devastated by You-Wouldn’t-Draft-Him-In-A-Beer-League-Scumbag Zac Rinaldo’s way too late, way too high charge on John Klingberg. Classic 2014/2015 Stars, am I right?
I would love to lie and say the streak meaningfully impacted Dallas’ hopes of post-season play. Unfortunately, the team still sits seven points and four teams behind the Western Conference’s final playoff berth. Our grim reality is that Seguin’s injury, and the six-game losing streak to follow, more than likely torpedoed things for the year.
The shame of it all (beyond the obvious) is that such negative thinking obscures some decidedly positive signs for the future. This year’s version of the Dallas Stars is a flawed team, not a bad one. That’s an important distinction. Flaws can be fixed, bad just sort of lingers and rots. Despite their struggles, the Stars are a team with strengths (second in the league with 3.10 Goals-per-Game), and a team with assets (both young players and cap space).
Two of those assets, and two pieces making a recent case they can be relied upon in years to come, are young wingers Curtis McKenzie and Brett Ritchie. Neither name is new to Stars fans. High draft status (Ritchie) and AHL acclaim (McKenzie) have kept both players top of mind, but thus far they’ve struggled to make a consistent impact. In Ritchie’s case a strong start (three goals in his first six games) gave way to injury and ineffectiveness. McKenzie lacked even that much production, and furthermore struggled to stick with the big club.
Things have been better lately. In fact, I would go so far as to say they’ve both been minor revelations. Over the past five games, Ritchie and McKenzie have each contributed two goals and an assist. Pretty goals, too. McKenzie’s tip against Florida and Ritchie’s quasi-breakaway versus the Flyers were particularly impressive combinations of positional sense, physicality, and skill. More importantly, those goals kept the lights on while their more illustrious colleagues struggled. Did you know that Jamie Benn and Seguin have combined for three goals in the past ten games?
Last night’s win against the Hurricane’s provided a tantalizing glimpse of what the duo can bring to the table. Both saw relatively modest usage (12:26 TOI for Ritchie, 14:01 for McKenzie) primarily flanking veteran Shawn Horcoff. They used that time to pursue and pummel the hapless Hurricanes. The pair combined for 12 credited hits (five for Ritchie, seven for McKenzie), five shots, and zero penalty minutes. They were also prominently involved in the extended cycle that led to Alex Goligoski’s fourth tally of the season.
There was a robust simplicity to the game they played last night. Hit somebody, get the puck, get the puck towards the net. Over and over they challenged the Hurricanes physically and won. They stayed on-task, and they stayed out of the box.
As they begin to accrue more NHL experience, I suspect we’ll see their ice time grow. Brett Ritchie, in particular, will probably feature on the Stars’ power play (no PPTOI last night), and with the Stars’ scoring lines. McKenzie, with a little more consistency, could help further weaponize a bottom six that’s ebbed and flowed with the performance of Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt. Proof the pair can contribute will also buttress the Stars against future injuries and ineffectiveness inside their top six. Starting tonight, we’ve got at least 14 more chances to see the pair play, and hopefully, grow into more meaningful roles.