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Fistric making most of latest opportunity

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

As the roller coaster ride that is the Dallas Stars’ 2008-09 season continues to careen up and down, one recent bright spot for the club has been the steady, physical play of second-year defenseman Mark Fistric.

While the team’s results have been rather inconsistent the last several weeks, the gritty Fistric has put forth some impressive performances since his recall from AHL Manitoba on Feb. 14, forming a solid pairing with fellow sophomore Nicklas Grossman.

“I think it’s been a pretty good transition for me,” the 6-foot-2, 232-pound native of Edmonton said. “I know what I have to do and that’s just consistently be physical, make good first passes and I think for the most part, I’m doing a pretty good job of it.”

“A strong, physical presence, he’s played very well,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said, assessing Fistric’s impact since his recall. “Him and Grossman have actually combined to be a strong tandem, they defend well. They keep their puck play simple, they’re weighty and they’re making other teams’ forwards pay the price down low and that’s what we’re looking for.”

The added physical dimension that Fistric provides was something the Stars felt was lacking on their blueline and the 22-year-old has certainly delivered in that area. In the 13 games since rejoining the Stars, Fistric has doled out 55 hits, an incredible 4.2 average per game, and ranks 10th on the club with 73 overall in just 24 total contests. If he sustained that rate over the entire season to this point, he’d have a whopping 283, which would lead the entire NHL (Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck is first with 272, while Stephane Robidas currently tops the Stars with 192, good for 10th in the league).

His fellow defenders certainly appreciate his contributions since he’s returned to Dallas.

“He’s been great, he’s been a big body that moves people, hits people,” Trevor Daley said. “I think that’s what we’re asking him to do, is play strong, play physical and he’s definitely done that.”

“He’s been really good, he’s been really effective,” Robidas added. “He’s been playing really physical and he’s been really steady. He comes in a tough situation - we’re fighting for a playoff spot and there’s a lot of pressure and I think he handles that very well so far.”

After shining last season as a rookie and impressing with his poise in high-stakes situations during the Stars’ run to the Western Conference Finals last spring, Fistric had a difficult time meeting the higher expectations in year two and struggled early this season, as did the team as a whole. Through his first 11 games, Fistric registered a -2 plus/minus rating while averaging 12:41 of ice time per game, a significant drop from the 14:51 he logged over nine contests in the 2008 post-season. Finally, he was assigned to AHL Manitoba on Nov. 2.

Fistric admitted it was difficult being sent down, but he tried to keep a positive attitude and was determined to work his way back to the NHL.

“It’s always tough getting sent down,” admitted Fistric, the Stars’ first-round selection (28th overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft. “Obviously, you never want that to happen, especially when I had such a great year last year and I had a good playoff run. Coming to camp with such high expectations and not being able to meet them is definitely disappointing, and then you start to lose confidence in yourself because you expect so much out of yourself.

“But I kept it in the back of my head that I’ve proven to myself that I could play here and I just tried to better myself every day I was down there, so when the call came to come back, I was ready to go.” 

Since the Stars don’t have their own AHL affiliate this season, Fistric played in Manitoba with a team consisting primarily of Vancouver Canucks prospects, but fit in well and re-discovered his game. In 35 games with the first-place Moose, Fistric earned eight assists and posted an impressive +12 rating, but the most important by-product of his experience was regaining his confidence and physical edge.

“Our total team was struggling, but we were looking for more of a physical element and I just think it was a situation where he needed some more time in the minors to get his game in order,” Tippett said, explaining the reasoning behind Fistric’s demotion. “And he did that. He’s come in and played very well.”

“He played unbelievable last year, he played really good,” Robidas noted. “For whatever reason, early in the year, they sent him down. That’s part of the game, you can’t take anything for granted. There’s no freebies for anybody. We had a lot of defensemen and he kind of paid the price. But I guess he worked pretty hard down there, he came back, and he’s been really good for us.”

Associate coach Rick Wilson, who handles the defensemen, has been very happy with the player who returned from Manitoba.

“He’s shown steady improvement in positional play and aggressive play and puck play, so that’s very encouraging,” Wilson said. “He has a little more of a confident look to him, which comes from playing a lot of minutes - just what we hoped he’d do in the minors, get lots of minutes, gain a little more experience and gain the confidence in those situations, with position, with the puck, with aggressiveness and the special situations like penalty killing. He just looks more confident.”

That Fistric has regained the confidence of the coaching staff shows in his ice time - in the 13 games since he’s been back, he’s averaged 17:26 per contest, a dramatic increase over his earlier stint before the assignment to Manitoba.

One of the keys to his play lately has been his partnership with Grossman. The two are both big, physical, defensive defensemen who have developed good chemistry together.

“I think that we play a very similar type of game and we push one another to be better,” Fistric said. “It’s good - when he goes in the corner and I see him banging around, that gets me going too and I want to go bang in my corner. I think that we really feed off each other well.”

“I think it’s been working pretty good since we got put together,” agreed the 24-year-old Grossman, who is 6-foot-3, 214 pounds. “I think one of the reasons is we got a similar style of play out there, we try to keep it simple - hard and simple, basically. Play physical and bring that element to the game. That’s one of the reasons I think they put us together out there, too, to get that physical edge, be a heavy group to play against. It’s been going pretty good so far.”

Wilson also believes the pairing has been a success.

“For now, it’s working very well,” Wilson said. “They’re both big, strong - they’re quick, they’re fairly mobile and they’re starting to get very good together on penalty killing and the 5-on-5 defending. It looks encouraging right now.” 

With the Stars still in the thick of a grueling battle down the stretch just to make the playoffs in the crowded Western Conference race, they will need Fistric to continue his fine play and for him and Grossman to keep up the physical dirty work.

“Since he’s come back, he’s been playing real good, really playing physical and bringing that edge to the game,” Grossman said of Fistric. “Every night I try to keep up with him when I see him running around out there (dishing out hits). It’s fun, it’s what me and him got to bring to the table.” 

“He went and kind of resurrected his game again and actually has taken it to another level, which is what we wanted, too,” Wilson said of Fistric. “There’s probably two or three or more levels to go, but he’s moving in the right direction.”

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