After dropping two-straight games against Canadian-based hockey teams, the Dallas Stars looked for a win against Edmonton.
With only 21 shots on goal, the Stars recorded 54 penalty minutes in what turned out to be a gritty, rough affair. In the end, the Stars recorded two points, but who knew these two teams had bad blood?
The Stars have been a tough team to play against all season, particularly at home. In their recent home game against the Atlanta Thrashers, the Stars and Thrashers almost got into a full-team brawl during warmups. The game against Edmonton was no different.
But that has been the atmosphere for the Stars all year. They have become a hard-nosed, physical team. More importantly, the Stars seem to have developed solid chemistry — on and off the ice.
“This is the closest locker room I’ve ever been part of. It’s fun,” Brad Richards told ESPN.com.
Brenden Morrow echoed Richards’ belief about the camaraderie that has developed. Such chemistry is rare. Players may go an entire career without experiencing the kind of rapport the Stars have had throughout this season.
“Guys love being together,” said Brenden Morrow. “We had an off-day here and other than one or two guys who had family here, everyone was together. We haven’t seen that too often in the past. It’s pretty special.”
Since game one, the Stars have been exceeding the level of play many outsiders thought possible. But commentary means little compared to what happens on the ice. After 50 games played the Stars sit in first place in the Pacific Division, and are currently battling for the second seed in the Western Conference.
“I probably wouldn’t have thought we would have been here,” Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “But funny things happen when you get this in place, where guys play hard for each other. You don’t have to have the most talented team or the highest-priced team. There’s a belief that’s grown over the course of the year.”
It can’t go without noting the quality goaltending the team has gotten. At the start of the year, Kari Lehtonen — who recorded 34 saves in the recent game against Edmonton — stood on his head and allowed the rest of the team to build confidence. Since then, there hasn’t been any looking back. Of course, as happens during an 82-game season, the Stars have hit an occasional speed bump, but the team has continually found a way to upshift their game.
In their recent tilt against Edmonton, the Stars displayed the sort of resilience that has kept them in the upper tier of
teams in the West. After setting a franchise record with eight-straight road wins (one of which came against Edmonton), the team looked tired and dropped two blow outs against the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. No doubt the team was happy to return from their trip in western Canada. Krys Barch got the team started about midway through the first period when he went toe to toe with Edmonton’s Jim Vandermeer. That fight set the mood for the game, as the two teams continued to drop the gloves, finish hard checks and stand up for their teammates. By the end of the second period, the penalty minutes were racking up. At one point in the game, both teams had three players sitting in either penalty box. But it wasn’t sloppy play causing all the penalties, it was character. As players came to the aid of one another throughout the game, everything Richards and Morrow said about team chemistry became tangible on the ice. Even offensive-minded James Neal got into the action. When one of his teammates took a check from behind, Neal didn’t hesitate to drop the mitts. He and Theo Peckham had a bout, and Neal received 19 penalty minutes for the encounter. But that has been the Stars team all season long, and it probably isn’t going to change anytime soon. If the Stars continue to be a physical, gritty team that is hard to play against night in and night out, they should finish in the top of the Western Conference. What a difference from a year ago.
“I think the biggest difference is what you’re seeing out there,” Nieuwendyk said. “A group of guys that enjoy being around each other and playing hard for each other. We have talent and good goaltending, we have skill, but over half the battle is what you’re seeing out here. These guys are having fun and don’t want to let each other down. I think that’s been probably our biggest thing.”