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Back healthy, Morrow provides boost to streaking Stars

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Conventional wisdom usually dictates that when a team is going well, it shouldn’t change anything.

But for the Dallas Stars, who have been rolling along lately as one of the NHL’s hottest teams, an exception can be made for their captain.

After missing 18 games due to an upper body injury, winger Brenden Morrow returned to the lineup Saturday night and had an immediate impact, scoring the game-winning goal in the second period to help the Stars defeat the Anaheim Ducks 2-0.

Additionally, he fired two shots on goal and delivered three hits, but also wound up spending six minutes in the penalty box, providing the Ducks with power plays each time. Fortunately for the Stars, their outstanding penalty killing unit nullified all of them and goaltender Kari Lehtonen made 21 saves for the shutout.

The win was the red-hot club’s fifth straight and 10th straight game earning a point, with their scintillating 9-0-1 mark representing the NHL’s best record over that span.

“It feels good (to be back out there),” said Morrow, who increased his penalty minute total to 80, second only to Steve Ott on the club. “I was a little nervous, I guess, that I would screw things up, as good as the guys were rolling, and Kari made sure I didn’t do that sitting in the penalty box three times, so kudos to him.”

“I thought early on, he was getting his feet wet, and as it went on, he got better, and then he got into some penalty trouble,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan of Morrow’s performance. “But I thought it was a good first game from Brenden.”

The goal, which came on a second period power play, was set-up nicely by center Jamie Benn, allowing Morrow to bang home his ninth of the season into a half-empty net.

“Those four-footers with an empty cage are pretty easy to hit sometimes,” said Morrow of the play, which enabled him to tie former Stars teammate Jere Lehtinen for eighth on the franchise’s all-time scoring list with 514 career regular season points. “Benner made a great play, sold it pretty good and hit me back door for an empty net.”

As for the long-standing superstition of not altering things when a team is having success, there certainly was no hesitation about adding Morrow back into the mix of a squad that had been enjoying plenty of success without him.

“Brenden is a great player and we can’t wait to get him back,” Gulutzan said a few days before his return. “He’s our captain and he’s our leader, and we want him back healthy. There’s no question getting him back in our lineup makes us a better hockey club. Everyone this time of the year wants a guy like Brenden - a heavy body with heavy character who can win the little wars within the big war. Not too many teams have those guys. Brenden Morrow is a pretty special player, and coming back and seeing him healthy, he can be a one-man wrecking crew.”

“It’s a boost for us and to have Brenden back to give us that grit, and it’s just a better team with him,” added center Mike Ribeiro, his usual center over most of the past five seasons. “We just have to keep doing the same things and work hard, and I’m sure he’s going to fit well.”

One thing going well that Gulutzan opted not to tinker with, though, was the make-up of the Stars’ most dangerous scoring line. Since early February, the bulk of the club’s offense has been supplied by the red-hot trio of Ribeiro centering wingers Loui Eriksson and Michael Ryder.

The dominance and consistency of those three, each of whom has averaged at least a point per game over the last month or so, has been a significant factor in the squad’s recent surge to the top of the Pacific Division, and even though Morrow and Ribeiro have a long history of outstanding chemistry together, everyone agreed that the top line as currently configured should remain together.

Instead, on Saturday, the 33-year-old Morrow skated on a second line alongside Benn and Ott, and probably will remain there for the foreseeable future.

“That’s up to Gully,” Morrow said regarding his specific place in the lineup. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to break up that line right now as good as they are playing, I’ll be the first to tell you that.”

“It’s like I told Brenden, we talk quite a bit, and I just always wanted him to play with Bennie, even from the start of the year,” Gulutzan revealed. “I wanted them, as big bodies, to get in there and cycle, get pucks to the net, and now we get a chance. That first line has played very well the last 15, 16 games, and I think if we can develop another heavy, hard-working line, that’s only going to benefit us down the road. I like it, that’s something I talked about with Brenden and we’re all on the same page.”

Morrow acknowledged that the injury had been bothering him all season, and in fact, dates back much further than that, although he doesn’t want to blame it for his sub-par first half in which he’d totaled eight goals and 22 points in 43 games. That represented a disappointing drop-off after he accumulated a career-high 33 goals last season.

“It’s been bothering me all year and we’ve done some things to try and settle it down,” said Morrow, who missed seven other games earlier in the season with the same issue before going on Injured Reserve Feb. 3 to embark on his latest round of treatment. “Actually, it’s probably a two-and-a-half, three-year thing that has just progressively gotten worse. (It has limited) function, mobility, attitude. There’s lots of things when you’re not feeling healthy - you’re grumpy.  I’m not 100 percent, but I know I’m a lot healthier than I was.”

And in true NHL style, Morrow declined to detail the exact nature of the injury, describing it simply as an ‘upper body injury.’

“It’s that time of year where it’s probably not a good idea to say, so we’ll just call it an upper body injury,” he said.

Now that he’s back on the ice, the gritty 6-foot-0, 205-pound native of Carlyle, Saskatchewan vows not to change his robust, physical style of play that probably contributed significantly to the injury.

“I really don’t think I’m going to change much,” said Morrow, whose 106 hits on the season still ranks sixth on the club, despite all the time he’s missed. “There’s nothing I can do when somebody’s cross-checking you from behind and I’m getting whiplash, I can’t really stop that. I think the reversal is kind of a defense to that. If I’m going to get hit, I’m going to hit them before they hit me. Probably, if anything, I might need to do that a little bit more. I guess it can be scary, but we know we’re playing a physical sport and you take every day like it could be your last anyway.”

And although his first game back went very well, Morrow acknowledged that he still has a ways to go before he feels completely comfortable on the ice again, both as far as his timing and his conditioning is concerned.

“The legs felt better in the first and second period, I know it’s going to take some time to get all the reps of game conditioning,” admitted Morrow, who logged 16:34 of ice time, over a minute less than his overall season average of 17:48. “You can ride all the bikes you want, scrimmage all you want, but you’re not going to get the same competition as you get playing in an NHL game, as intense as they are. It’s going to be a few games, the timing coming back, the legs coming back, but I felt pretty good for that first one.”

Welcome back, Brenden.

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