When Stars left winger Loui Eriksson
sped in on a breakaway and fired a quick wrist shot past Anaheim goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere with just 2:18 remaining in Game 6, it gave the Stars a 3-1 lead and basically clinched the game.
With that goal came the breathing room the Stars needed, leading to an incredible eruption from the sellout crowd of 18,532 at the American Airlines Center. It signaled they were on their way to eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champions and advancing to the Western Conference Semi-finals for the first time since 2003.
For Eriksson, whose outstanding performance on the second line with Brad Richards and Joel Lundqvist was an important factor in determining the outcome of the series, it was his third goal of the playoffs - tying captain Brenden Morrow
for the team lead - and was clearly the biggest of his two-year NHL career.
“It was a good one, it was an awesome feeling,” said Eriksson, who completed the series with five points. “I had a breakaway before that, too, and didn’t get that one, but that was an awesome feeling. I’d been trying to do the fake two times against (Giguere) and he wasn’t taking them, so I was thinking I was going to shoot it this time, so I shot it and it went in, so it was a nice feeling.”
It was just the latest big moment for Eriksson, whose progression this season has been impressive, and served notice that he has arrived as a big-time offensive player. Touted as the Stars’ top prospect since his selection in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, the 22-year-old Eriksson is still learning, continually improving and gradually evolving into the player the Stars always thought he would become.
“He’s played very well. That line’s been a very solid line for us at both ends of the rink,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “Loui was opportunistic, got three goals, probably could have had more, had some very good chances. I think Loui’s starting to recognize that he could be a very good NHL player. He’s very sound in a lot of aspects of his game - he skates well, he does all the fundamentals very well and now he’s just starting to get the confidence that he knows he can play in a lot of different situations and he knows he’s relied on to contribute. He’s maturing to where he takes the responsibility of being a very good NHL player.”
“All year, he’s been playing better and better,” added Lundqvist, his longtime friend and teammate dating back to their days as teenagers in Sweden, who scored one goal and four points in the series. “You can tell he has confidence, he does things with the puck and makes some really good plays. He’s been really good for us.”
Eriksson has come a long way from the first month of the season, when he sat out 10 of the first 16 games as a healthy scratch before being re-assigned to AHL Iowa in early November. It was difficult returning to the team he starred for in 2005-06, his first season in North America when he led Iowa with 31 goals and was second on the club with 60 points, but the experience allowed him to get some much-needed playing time and regain some lost confidence.
“It was a little bit disappointing,” Eriksson acknowledged. “I didn’t play in three games in a row there for Dallas, so it was probably good for me to get down and get some more ice time and work on my stuff that I did the first year I played in Iowa. It was fun to go down, I know all the guys down there, and play power play, penalty killing, everything. It was just two games down there and up again, so everything went good. I went down and I felt the puck more and just create some more chances down there, so it was probably good for me. ”
After coming back to Dallas, Eriksson slowly began to turn his year around and by mid-December, was playing solid hockey. He just continued to get better and better as the season wound down, finishing with 14 goals and 31 points in 69 games played.
“The last 40 games or so have been a real positive,” Tippett said. “He’s turned into a guy that reads all situations with the puck and without the puck, he’s a very determined checker, worker, and he’s starting to find the offensive side of the game, where he makes plays and capitalizes on some chances.”
Eriksson was paired up with Richards at some point during the Stars’ March slide in which they struggled to a 2-7-2 record, days that seem like a long time ago now, and the two clicked. Tippett added Lundqvist to the equation for Game 1 against Anaheim and the line displayed instant chemistry. After Eriksson scored in Game 1 and both Richards and Eriksson found the back of the net in Game 2, both victories, the combo has been together ever since.
“I think we’ve been a great line,” Eriksson said. “We got a skilled guy in Richie, always makes good plays and likes to have the puck and finds the open guys there. Lundy’s just a physical guy, he works really hard on the ice and you know what you can get from him, too. It’s two great players to play with.”
Eriksson’s increased productivity has also earned him extra ice time, as he’s seen duty on the power play unit and in more situations overall. After averaging 14:01 of ice time per game in the regular season, he has logged 16:42 in the post-season. That makes a big difference in helping feed a player’s confidence, which in turns further helps fuel positive performance on the ice, thereby earning him even more ice time.
“You get more ice time, you feel more comfortable out there,” Eriksson said. “I’ve just been trying to play good out there and just trying to be better every game I play. I just try to work hard on everything. It’s fun to be here and play, it’s been going good.”
Having multiple lines that can contribute offensively was a major plus for Dallas in the series against the Ducks, who at times managed to shut down the Stars’ top trio of Mike Ribeiro
, Brenden Morrow
and Jere Lehtinen, but then had two other dangerous lines to deal with. With Eriksson chipping in three goals and Stu Barnes and Steve Ott
each notching two, the Stars’ secondary scoring helped tip the series in their favor.
“You don’t get very far unless you have that depth and that scoring throughout the lineup,” noted Mike Modano, who added two goals and six points centering the third line. “Some people are going to get special attention, they’re going to get checked and neutralized, so you need other scoring from everywhere else. If you don’t, you’re not going to be around very long, but if you do have four lines scoring and contributing, that’s a good thing to have.”
The Stars have it and it will continue to loom large in the next round. As for Eriksson, his emergence as a reliable offensive threat has been an anticipated, but very welcome development.
“Loui has been looked upon by this organization as a very strong player coming,” Tippett said, “but I think it just shows the progress that he’s made that, A, he’d be in the situation to (score that insurance goal in Game 6), and B, to accomplish what he’s trying to do, and I think that speaks volumes for our young players.”