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Fighting injuries just part of the playoffs

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

A few days after being eliminated from the NHL playoffs, it would only be natural for the Stars fan, if not the players themselves, to reflect on their six-game defeat to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals and think, ‘If only we had all of our players at full-strength, the outcome might have been different.’

That may be where the fans’ thought process wanders to, but that is just not how the players or coaching staff think.

Yes, it’s true that having veteran forwards Jere Lehtinen and Stu Barnes and defenseman Philippe Boucher would have increased the Stars’ chances of victory against the Red Wings, but that’s an x-factor that simply can’t be measured. Besides, that’s just playoff hockey.

“You can’t worry about that,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “Sure, we would have loved to have had them, but those are just situations that arise. I’m more disappointed we didn’t get by (Detroit). Injuries happen, that’s just part of the game.”

“Injuries are a big part of the game,” added captain Brenden Morrow, who finished the playoffs playing through two different minor injuries - a torn shoulder muscle and a sore groin. “We weren’t healthy and I’m pretty sure Detroit was banged up, too. There’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes that you don’t see. It’s a long haul, it’s a grind, but you can’t question those things. Injuries are going to happen. You’re a pretty lucky team if you can go through the playoffs without some sort of injuries, so we’re not going to have any regrets about that.”

There wasn’t much debate that the Stars could have benefited from Lehtinen, Barnes and Boucher being in the lineup, it was just clear that no one was willing to accept that as an excuse for the outcome.

“It was a huge impact. So many things have to go right if you want to win and move on,” said center Brad Richards, who won a Stanley Cup (and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP) in 2004 with Tampa Bay. “That’s always something you can talk about when you lose, about how it might have been, but it wasn’t, that’s part of the battle of the playoffs.”

“(They) were big parts of our team, it was really tough,” center Mike Modano added. “All those guys, they were real catalysts for our team, they made us really go, just an extra guy that could be out there and do little parts of the game very well and score, they’ve always seemed to be at the right time at the right place. Yeah, it hurt not having them.”

And while each of the three was officially listed as day-to-day throughout the Western Conference Finals, it turns out that none of them were looking at an imminent return. In fact, even if the Stars did beat the Wings and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, which don’t begin until Saturday, there were no guarantees any would have been back for that series.

For example, Barnes, dealing with concussion-like symptoms (which also kept Detroit’s leading playoff goal-scorer, Johan Franzen, off the ice for Games 2-6) since getting leveled by San Jose’s Jonathan Cheechoo in overtime of Game 3 in the second round, had to adhere to a scripted schedule for head injury situations and wasn’t sure when he might be cleared to play again.

“It was just a process are far as being able to work through the symptoms,” Barnes noted. “I’d get two, three days in, then we’d fall back a couple of days. It’s frustrating, but I think the other side of it is you have to respect the symptoms for what they were and you have to be smart about it as well.”

With the unpredictable nature of head injuries, Barnes indicated that he wasn’t feeling back to normal yet and still just has to wait it out before he can begin exercising again.

“I haven’t had any (symptoms recently) because I haven’t worked out for quite awhile, but you still don’t feel quite right,” he admitted. “Probably, time is the only thing that can get through it, just finally give it time to rest, just give it time to settle it down and when that time comes, you can get back at it and go from there.”

For Boucher, who was limited to just 38 games in the regular season due to separate injuries to each of his shoulders, his hip injury was especially frustrating. He had just returned to the lineup for the final six regular season games and got hurt again in Game 3 of the first round against Anaheim.

“I had a torn hip flexor, basically the same injury Mo had last year,” Boucher reported, citing the ailment that cost Modano 23 games in 2006-07. “It was around an eight-week injury, that’s what it took last year for Mo, and we were at about five weeks and pushing. I was hoping that if we were to go to the next round, that I would be available. That’s what I was pushing towards. I was very close, but some injuries you can play with, some you can’t and that was one of those.” 

While Barnes and Boucher were big losses, the absence of Lehtinen was perhaps even more damaging, since he occupied the right wing on the Stars’ top scoring line with Morrow and Mike Ribeiro. Replacing that chemistry and production proved to be difficult. 

After exiting in the second period of Game 2 against Detroit, Lehtinen was definitely missed and forced Tippett to re-shuffle the forward lines several times the rest of the way. Antti Miettinen and Steve Ott each filled in on the top line and neither registered a point, while Ribeiro, still second in the NHL in playoff assists with 14, picked up just two after Lehtinen’s departure.  

In addition to those three key veterans who couldn’t make it back on the ice, there were plenty of other guys fighting through various ailments that might have kept them out of a regular season contest but who battled through the pain to continue playing in the high-stakes playoffs.

For the captain Morrow, life in the Detroit series was difficult. He first hurt his groin in the four-overtime Game 6 epic against San Jose (which he won in dramatic fashion to clinch the series) and then injured his shoulder in Game 3 against the Wings when he missed on a bodycheck attempt and slammed into the boards. Neither slowed him down much, however, as he contributed two goals and four points in the series and continued his robust physical style.

“Brenden hasn’t been the same since the last San Jose game,” Tippett said after Game 6 Monday night. “He’s basically played on one leg since then. The shoulder injury, I’m not sure where that’s going to get to, but there’s a small tear in his shoulder.”

“That Game 6, dehydration, whatever happened, a lot of us got muscle problems and I just had a sore groin from that,” Morrow acknowledged. “I had to have it wrapped a bit during the Detroit series. I think every guy back there had something wrong with him.”

Another player valiantly soldiering on despite a pestering, painful ailment was defenseman Mattias Norstrom, who suffered a sports hernia/abdominal strain in the Anaheim series and still managed to play some outstanding hockey, including picking up an overtime game-winner in Game 3 of the San Jose series.

  “It’s actually gotten a little bit better. I hurt it in the first series,” said Norstrom, who revealed he got a shot before every game to deal with the pain. “It was just a small tear that will probably just heal up by itself. If you look at it right now, the two teams left right now, there are injuries, there are guys that are banged up that you don’t really know about.”

Tippett indicated there were likely more injuries but didn’t get specific.

“There’s lots. I’m sure we’re going to find out lots of little bumps and bruises all over the place,” he said. “You don’t go through three rounds of playoffs, especially hard, hard series like we went through in the first two, there’s a lot of welts and bumps and bruises in there that could take a while to heal up.”

Typical of the fierce competitors they are, two different Stars indirectly blamed themselves for ending up in a position to sustain some of those ailments that may have eventually taken a toll on them against Detroit.

“It was just two tough series against Anaheim and San Jose took a lot out of us,” Morrow said, pointing to the fact that Dallas entered the post-season as the five seed and faced elite-level opponents in each round. “That’s why you play 82 games, though, I guess, to be that top seed and we went through some real good hockey teams, and that’s going to be something on our minds next year, that we’re going to try and make it easier on ourselves.”

Richards suggested the Stars’ difficulty in finishing off the Sharks in the second round, after building up a 3-0 series lead, negatively impacted them in the Conference Finals, and not just because of lingering fatigue from the marathon Game 6.

“Maybe we didn’t deserve to beat San Jose four straight, but if we could have got that done in the fourth game, you never know, four or five days more rest there might have done a world of difference,” Richards said. “I know from my experiences, when we won (in Tampa), we had two quick rounds and nine and 10 days off in between rounds, and in the end, we kept away from injuries. I think that’s another lesson, how important it is to close people out when you can, because you never know how it’s going to affect you down the road.”

Either way, Tippett marveled at how his charges played through the pain and kept battling to the end.

“That’s the grind of the playoffs, it is so hard. The commitment that these players put forth is just phenomenal,” Tippett said. “Until you’ve been in that dressing room, seeing guys that after a game, they have a hard time moving their leg or moving their elbow, their shoulder doesn’t work, and the next day they show up and say, ‘When do we play again?’ That’s what makes our game great.”

Of course, Norstrom shrugged off the notion that it took heroic fortitude to receive an injection, ignore the pain and keep playing, without a decline in effectiveness, because that’s what needs to be done in order to win in the playoffs.

“Without sounding too dramatic, if it’s something you really want, usually those are the things that you have to do a little extra to get there,” Norstrom said. “I think playing through injuries or taking the details of the game - some guys block a shot or take a hit. You rather not take a hit, but you do whatever you can to win.

“I’d like to think that that’s how you win. Sometimes it’s not, others that is the case, that the team that is prepared to go through that wall, put their heart on the line, they will win.”

The Stars certainly did that this spring. 

Rest up and heal now, boys. You’ve earned that much.

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