Ritchie has scored three goals in three games since his return, including two in Texas’ 6-3 win over Toronto Sunday in Cedar Park that evened the Western Conference Finals at 1-1.
“We needed him back,” said Texas Stars coach Willie Desjardins. “We needed him for the first two series. He makes a difference for us. He’s a big body. It is playoff hockey and he’s suited for playoff hockey.”
Ritchie scored in his first game back, tallying off a wrist shot from the slot with Texas on the power play as the Stars clinched a berth in the Conference Finals with a 7-1 victory over Grand Rapids on May 18. On Sunday, he scored again on the power play, roofing a shot from the bottom of the right circle to tie the game after Toronto had taken a 1-0 lead. He put Texas up 3-2 late in the second when he scored off a shot from the slot.
Going back to late December, Ritchie has been on a goal scoring roll. He has 21 goals in his last 40 games, including both regular season and playoffs. All this comes after he couldn’t buy a goal early in the season despite quality chances.
“It’s a weird game,” said Ritchie. “Sometimes it hits the post and then the other times a lucky one goes in.”
The 20-year-old Ritchie, a 6-3, 220-pound right wing, is considered one of the top prospects of the Dallas Stars. In his first full professional season, he tallied 48 points (22 goals, 26 assists) in 68 regular season games with Texas, finishing eighth among AHL rookies in points and 11th in goal scoring. He ranked sixth on Texas in both goals and points, and was tied for third in shots on goal.
“Ritchie had a good season. He’s a little bit of a streaky scorer, but he played really well down the stretch for us,” said Desjardins. “He’s real good down low in the offensive zone, real hard to handle down low. He takes the puck to the net really well. Lots of good things with him.”
Ritchie played well early in the season, but the goals didn’t come. He scored just four in his first 31 regular season games, but 18 over the final 37 games. Now he has those three goals in three playoff games.
“It wasn’t like I was playing a different brand of game early on, I just couldn’t score,” Ritchie said. “The chances were there. Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t. They were going in towards the end of the season. I think if you’re going to struggle, you’d rather do it at the beginning of the year and get better. That’s the positive.”
In early April, Ritchie set a Texas Stars franchise mark for goals in a game when he scored four in a 5-1 win over Lake Erie. Two of them came off the rush with Ritchie driving the net to score. Both were an impressive display of speed, power and finish.
“Two of those goals he came flying in off the wing,” Texas forward Mike Hedden said after that game. “I didn’t know the big man could move like that.”
The Dallas Stars drafted Ritchie out of the Ontario Hockey League in the second round (44th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft. The big winger, projected as a top six power forward, registered 191 points (99 goals, 92 assists) in 220 games in the OHL, including 41 goals in 53 games last season. He had one stretch last season where he tallied 23 goals in 16 games and notched nine over a two-game span.
After his junior career ended, he joined Texas late last season and scored his first professional goal on the second shift of his first professional game. He ended up scoring three goals in five regular season games and two more in nine Calder Cup Playoff games. It was an experience that Ritchie said helped set the table for his solid rookie campaign.
“I thought it was good. I think what really helped me is coming last year, getting that experience and knowing what to expect right off the bat,” Ritchie said. “I think that is an advantage I had over a lot of the other guys my age that didn’t get to play a little bit last year. Even the playoffs last year, I knew what to expect coming into the playoffs.”
Playing on a quality team didn’t hurt. Texas finished with the best record in the AHL and ranked second in the league in goal scoring.
“Anytime you are part of a good team it is easy to have success yourself,” he said.
While last season’s experience helped prepare him for pro hockey, there were still some adjustments, especially away from the rink.
“Off the start, it was living on my own. I think once I figured out how to take care of myself off the ice, doing my own taxes and all that kind of stuff, paying different bills, it just takes a lot of the stress out of it,” Ritchie said. “Now, I feel like I am rolling through life as a functioning citizen. I am a little bit more grown up than I was, and that just makes it that much easier when you come to the rink and get on the ice here. You are more focused.”
That showed over the final half of the season and now that he’s back from injury, it’s showing again in the playoffs.
“Ritchie is a great player,” said Hedden. “When you can get a player like that back in your lineup, with his size and his shot, only good things can happen.”
And when good things are happening with Ritchie the puck usually ends up in the back of the opposition’s net.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.