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Enjoying the ride

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

One of the keys to the Dallas Stars’ victory over defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs was their ability to overcome the absence of top defensemen Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher. While there has been a lot of talk about how well the three rookie defenders picked up some of the slack, and that praise is well-founded, the contributions of veteran defenseman Mattias Norstrom cannot be overlooked.

With Zubov out, the 36-year-old Norstrom is the elder statesman of the Stars’ defense corps and, pairing up with 21-year-old freshman Matt Niskanen, provided solid, gritty D during the six-game triumph over the Ducks. While he may be underrated outside his own dressing room, Norstrom’s value to the Stars, particularly at playoff time, is fully recognized by his coaching staff and teammates.

“He’s just been rock solid back there for us,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “Playing with young Niskanen, that pair has been pretty good for us, but Norstrom, that’s what he is, an unbelievable character player and the playoffs, that’s when guys like that, they give a little extra. He was very good the first series, we expect him to be good in the second series.”

“That’s the challenge each individual player has going into the playoffs,” Norstrom said of trying to step it up for the post-season. “You want to try to raise your level, and you try to do it in different ways, and as a group, I think we elevated our play going into this playoff series as opposed to how we finished the regular season. You put pressure on yourself, but it’s also an environment you create as a team where you build up these expectations for each other.”

And as good as he’s been on the ice, there’s no question his value to the club extends far beyond the boundaries of the ice surface. With Zubov missing the entire series with a sports hernia injury, Norstrom helped fill the void with impressive leadership, anchoring a group that includes four defensemen under the age of 25. 

“I think he’s been a great mentor for all the young guys this year,” noted 23-year-old rookie Nicklas Grossman, a fellow Swede. “Just his presence around the locker room and off the ice, it’s easy for a young guy to look up to a guy like that. He’s a real good guy to look up to and he’s been playing real well in the playoffs.”

After Zubov was injured back in January, Norstrom was teamed up with Niskanen and has helped stabilize the youngster’s game.

“Nordie’s been great, especially for me,” Niskanen said. “He’s a really sound defender and he’s a true leader, too - so vocal and a really smart player. He’s really easy to play with, and I think we read off each other pretty well and he’s been a great guy to learn from.”

“Mattias has been very instrumental in my growth since I’ve been here,” added 21-year-old rookie Mark Fistric, who entered the lineup in Game 3 after Boucher was injured. “He’s taught me a lot. I look up to him. He’s kind of almost took me under his wing - he’s been awesome to me, just giving little pointers to me. A guy like that is just so experienced and such a veteran guy and has been in the league for so many years, you can learn a lot from him. Every time I come to the rink, I try to pick his brain, not only for the stuff he does on the ice, but for the things he does off the ice as well.”

Even fourth-year blueliner Trevor Daley, 24, reveres Norstrom for his wisdom and experience.

“Nordie’s our old man back there, he’s a veteran, he’s a leader,” Daley said. “Most of us look to him for advice. It’s just amazing what he brings to the table, not only on the ice but off the ice. It’s pretty special. I enjoy, off the ice, just sitting down and having dinner with him and talking with him. He’s just very bright individual.”

While the humble Norstrom downplayed his influence on his young teammates, he did point out that he feels it comes along with his status as a respected veteran.

“I try,” Norstrom said. “I’ve been in their shoes - when you’re younger, and you have a lot of questions, you want to do the right thing and you want to learn every day. The young kids we have here are great in that way. They do want to learn and hopefully there’s something, a couple of details, I can help them with. Sometimes it can be a tactical thing on the ice, other times it can just be approach. Hopefully some they take to heart and others, maybe they say, ‘Hey, old man, keep that to yourself.’ But I think it’s a responsibility of veteran players and hopefully, that will make your team better.”

The 14-year veteran from Stockholm, Sweden, who has scored a grand total of 18 regular season goals in 903 games, even managed to chip in on offense against the Ducks, contributing a goal and an assist in the series. His goal, a crucial power play tally in Game 5 that tied it 1-1, was his first ever in the playoffs, coming in his 42nd career post-season contest.

“It’s always fun scoring goals, that’s what it’s all about, so it’s always fun to get your first one,” Norstrom said. “I think it’s important, too - during the regular season and especially in the playoffs, you can’t just look to the same guys night-in and night-out, if you want to win as a team, if you want to win a series or win all the way. You need to get scoring from different players throughout the lineup, and I think that’s also a strength of any team that can get that.” 
“Nice to see him get on the board,” Tippett added. “Guys like that, they do so many things that go unnoticed until he scores a goal and then everybody says, ‘Oh, Norstrom played good.’ But he was playing good before he scored the goal.”

There’s no question about that. But the impressive thing about Norstrom is that whatever role you plug him into, he can do it well. While never an offensive threat, he stepped into that role with Zubov and Boucher out and delivered..

“I think that’s just his veteran leadership,” Fistric said. “He’s not a real offensive guy, but he just finds ways to help the team win and even that’s chipping in a goal, that’s just what he has to do. He’s just so instrumental for our team and he’s just great to have in the dressing room and I really look up to him.”

“You put him on the power play, he scores,” Daley marveled. “That’s not the first time that’s happened this year, he’s done that before. You just put him in any situation, he’s just such an all-around good player and good guy off the ice. It’s a reflection of him off ice, what you see on the ice, it’s the same thing, it’s pretty special.”

For all the hockey Norstrom has played, however, it’s almost hard to believe that this is just his second time playing past the first round. After beginning his career as a young spare part for the New York Rangers, Norstrom saw up close how hard it is for a team to win in the playoffs, as he accompanied the 1994 Stanley Cup champions but didn’t appear in a playoff game that spring. 

After moving on to Los Angeles, Norstrom’s Kings teams failed to qualify for the post-season in six of his 10 years there. After the Kings upset the Detroit Red Wings in the first round in 2001 and extended eventual Cup champion Colorado to seven games in the Western Conference Semi-finals, Norstrom didn’t skate in the playoffs again until last spring with Dallas.  

All that has taught him to enjoy the ride now, because you may not make it back this far again.

“My first year, ‘93-94 with the Rangers, I was the extra D there and they went all the way and I was there watching it, skating with the team every day but never got to play a game in the playoffs,” Norstrom recalled. “With that team, you thought, ‘Well, this is fun. Springtime, you have a good team, you push it extra hard.’ And I saw what it took. Not easy, but you figure, ‘This will be great, we’ll have a chance every spring and fight for the Cup.’ 

“And in 11 years in LA, we missed the playoffs I think six years and you know how tough it is just to make it to the playoffs, how good you have to be as a team just to get to be in the top 16 teams out of 30. So I have a whole new appreciation. At times, you feel sad, I only made it to the second round twice, but on the other hand, you get the teams that are good year-in and year-out, you hope those players really appreciate what they have a chance to do every spring. You can’t take it for granted because then it’s not going to be there.”

Now that he’s made it this far, Norstrom is hoping to continue the ride as long as possible. With him helping lead the defense, the Stars’ chances are most definitely enhanced.

“He’s just a wily veteran that plays good, solid hockey come playoff time,” goaltender Marty Turco summed up. “He just epitomizes what this team is all about, the hard work, going about your business regardless of what other people think or do, and he knows what he can do is so important for this team. He’s been a great cog in our wheel for us.”
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