Strangis: Morrow sacrificing for another Cup chance

Thursday, 05.21.2015 / 9:20 PM
Ralph Strangis  - Special to

I'll tell you a story. It's a good story. Late May 2000; second straight Western Conference Final between the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche.

The Stars are the defending Stanley Cup champion but needed seven games to get past the Avalanche on the way to winning it. The Avalanche add defenseman Ray Bourque to help them get over the hump. Epic stuff.

Patrick Roy and Ed Belfour; Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk against Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Jere Lehtinen. Sergei Zubov, Derian Hatcher; Sandis Ozolinsh, Adam Foote.

This time Colorado takes a 2-1 series lead with a Game 3 win at home. It's May 20, a day off between games. The Stars have a 21-year-old rookie who wears No. 45; his name is Brenden Morrow. Nobody sees him doing much in the series because he had broken his ankle in Game 1 a few days earlier. The Stars bring him on the trip but leave his gear in Dallas. He ain't a player.

He's in a walking boot. He looks at his teammates getting ready for practice, goes to the trainer and takes off the boot. He jumps up and down on the foot that's broken and says, "See? See? I'm fine; I can go."

Stars trainer Dave Surprenant is leery but relents and tells Morrow to see how he does wearing skates. Only his stuff is in Dallas, so he asks Mike Modano if he can use his.

"My feet are bigger than his, and I remember he wanted to wrap up his ankle pretty good so he needed the extra room," Modano said. "So I gave him my skates and he walked around the room for a few minutes just to see that he could stand up OK."

If the Stars lose Game 4 and go down 3-1, forget it. In those days nobody came back from that.

Dallas flies in the gear, and on May 21 the kid comes to play; he's so jacked up he's banging everything he can, clearing space for linemates Modano and Hull.

Hull scores two goals and Modano gets one in a 4-1 win. Dallas outhits Colorado 37-21. The kid set the tone.

Dallas gets by Colorado in seven games again, but this time the Stars are denied in the Stanley Cup Final by the New Jersey Devils. Jason Arnott scores the Cup-clincher in overtime in Game 6 at Reunion Arena.

Brenden hasn't been back to the Final since. But he's two wins away.

More correctly, what's left of him is two wins away. The Tampa Bay Lightning lead the New York Rangers 2-1 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final with Game 4 at Amalie Arena on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

There are pieces of Brenden Morrow strewn all over NHL rinks across North America, mostly in the West. I know because I saw when the pieces fell. Bone and cartilage have been sacrificed to the game, and the blood has long since been scraped and cleaned from playing surfaces and boards, with the rest down the drain with the melting ice.

Blessed with the speed of a bottom-six grinder and the hands of a rock hauler, Morrow, despite his first-round draft pedigree, is the classic overachiever.

"He's one guy that certainly got the most out of what he was given," Modano said. "He had an understanding, even at an early age, of how he needed to play the game."

How Morrow played it was classic north/south. Straight lines. Go to the tough spots. Take the beatings. Give as good as he got.

And he picked up a trick from that Colorado series that he still rolls out 15 years later.

"I saw Peter Forsberg use his body to block the puck and then buck back into the defender to get separation," Morrow said. "I was afraid to try it for a while. But once I figured out how to do it, I did it as often as I could."

"The Reversal" -- what we called it on Stars broadcasts -- caught defenders unaware and gave Morrow the half step he needed to get to scoring areas. But times are changing.

"I pulled it out the other night against the Rangers and I got a penalty for it," he said. "So maybe I'll have to change my tactics."

Ironically, it was that move that caused severe knee damage in 2006. Like a lot of the injuries for Morrow through the years, it was self-inflicted. Some were the result of the hundreds of collisions and became chronic issues.

"I remember seeing him stretched out in traction in the mornings to give his neck and back relief so he could get out there for the game," Modano said. "What he battled through every year was unbelievable."

Other injuries just happened, like the time Radim Vrbata's skate slashed through Morrow's wrist Dec. 26, 2007. He missed the next three months but returned in time for a memorable 2008 playoffs.

"He was unstoppable in every aspect of the game," said Drew Remenda, then a TV analyst for the San Jose Sharks, who the Stars played in the second round. "In a series loaded with big stars he was the one that took it. He physically led the way, emotionally led the way, and scored the biggest goals a guy could score."

Morrow scored five goals in the series, including two in overtime. His series-winning goal in the fourth overtime of Game 6 in front of the home crowd resonates as one of the Stars' top moments.

And all you need to know about Brenden Morrow you can get from reading that score sheet: 51 minutes played, 19 hits, and the goal that sent the Stars to the Western Conference Final.

As the play-by-play guy it was my great fortune to put the exclamation point on it as confetti fell from the rafters. "Who else?!" I yelled into the mic with the celebration underway.

Morrow is on another extended playoff run with a contending team and playing for a coach he trusts, who trusts him, and with players he calls some of the best teammates he's had.

"That 'Triplets' line [Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat] might be the best line I've ever seen," Morrow said. "And our defense is big and smart. Our goalie [Ben Bishop] is terrific. And I know what my role is here. I'm having a lot of fun."

It isn't 2008 and he isn't counted on to lead the charge. His minutes are down and he hasn't scored. But he's still out there. Don't ever count him out.

"He's a warrior," Modano said. "And if I was going to battle I'd still want him with me."

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