Team depth making a difference for the Dallas Stars

Down 3-2 to the San Jose Sharks in the final minutes of the third period this past Thursday night, the Dallas Stars needed a goal. Their 8-game point streak, which had recently propelled them from a playoff onlooker onto the top of the Pacific, was on the line against their powerhouse division rivals.

Dallas Stars
Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott are just 2 out of over 20 players playing well for the Stars right now (HermonVonPetri/flickr)

With only 1:15 remaining in the game the Stars got that goal, off a mad scramble  in front of the Sharks net that was directed in by a Stars forward, tying the game and sending it into overtime and then the shootout.

It was there, in the shootout, that this same player scored the game’s winning goal, sneaking a smooth backhander past Antti Niemi in the 5th round.

That forward wasn’t Jamie Benn, the team’s de facto next generation franchise player. Nor was the forward a member of Dallas’ red-hot, newly-formed top line of Loui Eriksson, Mike Ribeiro and Micheal Ryder.

The goals were scored by 4th line sophomore and 2009 5th round draft pick Tomas Vincour, the regulation goal being his 4th goal of the season and only the 5th of his career.

Read that last paragraph again. The guy single-handedly defeated a dominant team like the San Jose Sharks, in a heated division matchup. If you’ve never heard of Vincour before now, take that thought and let it sink for a bit.

The game’s climactic finale also signaled what has become a consistent and decisive factor that’s been benefiting the Stars lately: team depth.

How much success has Dallas’ depth been providing them?

Vincour only played a total of 6:48 in ice time that game (that’s including overtime), but head coach Glen Gulutzan still trusted him enough to play him in the dying minutes with his team down a goal, against the Sharks of all teams.

That’s not to say that all of Dallas’ current line combinations, which have remained mostly the same for the duration of their current nine-game point streak, are equally talented or get equal ice time. The top line of Eriksson, Ribeiro and Ryder is easily still the best on the team, and play a correspondingly high number of minutes.

But what the Stars are seeing right now is their entire roster of individuals, from top to bottom, playing at, near or above the best of their ability; all the way from Benn continuing his emergence as a legitimate superstar and Ryder reaching for career goal and point bests, to rookie backup goaltender Richard Bachman’s 8-3-1 record and recent AHL callup Ryan Garbutt jumping up and getting a shot on the team’s second line.

Most impressive is that each line has found the ability to play a 200-foot game, with the top lines being able to shut down opposing top lines and bottom checking lines being able to score timely goals.

The same reliable depth is true on defense and in goal.

All six of the team’s regular defencemen are capable of comfortably and successfully playing 20 minutes per game or more, including undersized rookie Philip Larsen.

Kari Lehtonen is Dallas’ bonadife #1 goalie, but the team also has a heck of a lot of trust in the aforementioned Bachman, who got the start against the defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks this past Tuesday night, and stopped 29 out of 31 saves for the win.

Team chemistry is a mysterious science, but right now the Stars are oozing it, and it’s been a significant factor in their ascent to their current lead of the Pacific Division. It’s hard to beat a deep team where every guy accepts his role, buys into the system and does his required part. Just ask the 2011 playoff version of the Boston Bruins.

Gulutzan has always had a reputation of getting the most out of the players, and deserves a lot of credit for the current play of the Stars, but is quick to spread his praise throughout the entire locker room.

“The team’s a real tight group,” Gulutzan said. “They’re really playing for each other out there. Other than simplifying our game a little bit, they’re really focused on doing the right thing for each other and they’re holding each other accountable on the bench and in the locker room. I think that’s been the biggest thing.”

Regardless of whether the team’s success on any given night gets pointed at 1 player or 20, the Stars are currently one of the hottest teams in the NHL, and it certainly looks like they feel that they belong in that upper echelon.

If they can maintain this pace heading into the postseason, then they’ll be capable of giving even the best of the West a run for their money.