When push comes to shove, when grit gravitates to snarl, and competitors don't drop their gloves but simply bring even more energy and thump, you know it's playoff time.
And you know the guy standing at the end is the winner of each round in this survival-of-the-fittest marathon of a postseason.
Last year, the fittest were the Anaheim Ducks
, with their size and skill and relentless determination. This spring, the Dallas Stars
, with much less size, drew the assignment of trying to knock off the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round.
Winners in hockey's playoffs have to be well-rounded. The Stars start with a style that doesn't resemble pretty, but it's pretty darn effective.
"We're an in-this-together type of team," captain Brenden Morrow
told me back in late February while the Stars were in the midst of winning 13 of 15 games. "It's Dallas Stars
hockey. It's what I learned. It's an attention-to-details, hard-working, play-your-role plan. And it works."
On the eve of the Ducks-Stars matchup, Morrow added, "You have to push back a little bit but we don't want to cross that line. We'd like them to bully us a little bit and take advantage of them with the power play, if they cross the line. Bottom line: we need to play physical; we need to finish our checks."
Take advantage they have. The Stars scored four power-play goals and beat the Ducks 4-0 in Game 1. And Morrow was right in the middle of all the action, netting a goal and two assists. Dallas alos took Game 2 on the road before dropping Game 3, 4-2. Game 4, in Dallas, is Thursday night.
So far, Morrow has a team-best three goals and has two assists in the three playoff games against Anaheim. He has also served as the emotional catalyst for his team
Is it any wonder the Dallas Stars
named him captain prior to the 2006-07 season?
Just 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Morrow doesn't look like your typical power forward. But his never-give-an-inch style of play isn't out of place for the 29-year-old wing, who grew up in Carlyle, Saskatchewan, a farming town of about 1,200 hard-working people in Western Canada, where hard hits draw as much response from the fans as the pretty goals.
Morrow grew up with posters of Brett Hull
all around his room. All Morrow was missing were the hands of a surgeon that helped Hull score 741 career NHL goals, including 86 one season in St. Louis.
Once Morrow started playing junior hockey, he added a few Mike Modano
and Peter Forsberg
Morrow quickly learned, though, that his grit and the ability to play on the edge was his ticket to the National Hockey League. He is certainly more skilled, though, than some scouts gave him credit for when Morrow was picked at the bottom of the first round, 25th overall, in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft.
He had 25 goals in 2003-04, had 23 the next season and added a career-high 32 goals and 74 points this season, finding some real magic on a line with Mike Ribeiro
Most of all, Morrow's a real leader, a player who comes to play every night and make an impact. And he makes you like his persistence and perseverance.
"I remember him coming to training camp in 1999 and he wasn't supposed to be in our plans at the NHL level for another year or so, but he did everything we asked of him," said Montreal Canadiens
General Manager Bob Gainey, who held the same position with the Stars for their two Stanley Cup runs and was around when Morrow broke in to the Stars lineup. "Brenden was this kid that wouldn't take no for an answer. We kept giving him more responsibilities, thinking he would eventually fail and then we could send him down. But he forced us to keep him with his dogged determination. Finally, we had to send him down just because of the roster numbers. But he was back to stay in mid-November."
Ken Hitchcock, who now coaches Columbus, coached the Stars during Morrow's formative years and still vividly remembers Morrow's maturation.
"Brenden grew up as a rookie and went to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season in the NHL around leaders like Mike Keane
, Joe Nieuwendyk
, Brian Skrudland
, Brett Hull
and Guy Carbonneau
and he soaked up a lot of that dedication and passion for the game from them," said Hitchcock, who coached the Stars when they won the Cup in 1999 and for a near-miss the following year. "He broke his leg in the playoffs that year and he showed how much he wanted to play by missing only two games. If you broke his other leg, I still think he would have found a way to play."
Morrow just laughed when told of Hitchcock's words. But it was true. That year, he broke a bone in his right ankle in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final against Colorado. He was back in the lineup for Game 4.
"I remember hearing Guy (Carbonneau) say many times that the difference between being good and being a champion is being willing to make that extra effort," Morrow told me. "I wasn't trying to be a hero by playing with the bad foot. I felt like somebody had punched me, when they told me I had fractured my ankle. End of playoffs, I thought; except, every day, I was walking into the locker room and looking at guys who were hurt and still playing.
"So I thought to myself, 'No way I'm not playing.' Think about it, you only get a few chances in life to play in the Stanley Cup Final and I wasn't going to let a little pain get in my way."
|Despite breaking his ankle in Game 1 of the 2000 Western Confrence Finals, Morrow rejoined the Stars in Game 4.
That's just one reason why Morrow is the ultimate team player. He also wants to play all the important minutes, on the power play, penalty-killing and at the end of each period.
"He'll do whatever it takes to win," Stars coach Dave Tippett
said "He adds something new to his game each year, from scoring and passing and slamming people around the ice to penalty killing. Players seek out roles after they've been around for a while. But Brenden wants to learn how to do it all."
"He's the spark plug every team dreams of," said Stars goaltender Marty Turco
. "He'll stand up to anybody, hit anybody. He's emotional, but he keeps it in check, where the team can feed off it."
"I don't look at who I'm battling with. I don't care who it is," Morrow admitted. "My job is to get the puck and do something with it. And that's all I'm thinking about."
It's clear that Morrow got a lot of that spunk and inside-the-game savvy from his parents, who run a sporting goods store in Carlyle. But the professional demeanor clearly came from his time with Carbonneau, a three-time Cup champion who is now coaching the Montreal Canadiens
Morrow met his future bride, Anne-Marie Carbonneau, Guy's daughter, while singing karaoke at a New Year's Eve party in 2000. One thing led to another and, since Anne-Marie was sort of a hockey brat herself, the match turned to kismet. Plus, it kept the rookie from going hungry as he often joined the Carbonneau's for dinner.
"We'd be waiting for dinner and rearranging the salt and pepper shakers to represent penalty killers or power-play forwards," Morrow laughed. "And then Anne-Marie and her mom would walk in with the food and boy were we in trouble for bringing the game home with us."
But Carbonneau has to take a back seat to current Stars co-GM Brett Hull
for the boost in goal and point production being exhibited by Morrow. It was Hull who said he didn't want to deter Morrow from crashing the net. But, sometimes, he told Morrow, you find just the right time and space if you step back away from the contact.
Said Morrow, "I remember Hullie telling me, 'If you make contact with the defender and then step back a little, you give yourself more space and a better opportunity to get a little more on your shot ... and that time and space gives you a chance to see things a little better. Plus it gives you options you weren't getting.' "
Morrow clearly listens to advice. He's smart, he's gutty and gritty. He wants to be in all of the important situations.
So, when push comes to shove, when grit gravitates to snarl in the postseason, Morrow simply brings even more energy and thump, He is exactly the type of guy who could be standing tall at the end in this survival-of-the-fittest marathon of a postseason.