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Foot soldiers crucial to Stars early-season success

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

They may not get the headlines or appear on the scoresheet as often as some of their more luminous teammates, but the contributions the Dallas Stars receive from their foot soldiers - players like Brian Sutherby, Brandon Segal and Toby Petersen, not to mention newcomer Adam Burish - should not be overlooked.

While much of the attention for the Stars’ strong 4-1-0 start has rightfully gone to goaltender Kari Lehtonen and impressive offensive production from Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson, Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro and James Neal, the grit factor provided by the third and fourth lines has also been important to the club’s success.

General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk and coach Marc Crawford talked often during the off-season about wanting the Stars to become tougher to play against, and there’s no question that these players have followed the directive. 
It has already been documented how Burish, skating on the second line with Ribeiro and Morrow, has helped open up space for his talented linemates with his willingness to battle in the tough areas around the net. He also chipped in with his first goal as a Star in Monday night’s 5-4 loss to Tampa Bay.

But the real unsung players are the forwards who grind down the opposition, provide a physical presence and sacrifice their bodies to block shots, while playing solid defensively, all without logging tons of ice time. 

“I think everybody’s got an important role on the team,” noted the club’s top defenseman, Stephane Robidas, a gritty player in his own right. “We’ve got to fulfill it as best we can and I think it’s very important that we all understand our role. We all bring something different to the table and we’ve all got to bring it every night. That’s what makes a team successful. You can’t have everybody scoring goals, you need guys that play harder. I think it’s the right mix that we have and we feel confident that we have a really good team.”

Sutherby proved his value last season when he ranked second on the club in plus/minus rating with a +8 while averaging 8:37 of ice time. Segal impressed after the Stars claimed him off waivers from Los Angeles last February, logging 11:20 of ice time per night over the final 19 games, in his first stretch as an NHL regular.

This year, neither has yet appeared on the scoresheet and they’ve averaged 8:06 and 9:17 of ice time respectively.

“We need them to be strong on the forecheck, we need them to be grinding-style wingers that win a lot of loose-puck battles,” said Crawford of what he expects from those players. “They’ve got to be strong on the wall in our own end, they’ve got to be defensively very conscientious and positionally very sound. It’s hitting, it’s coming to the aid of their teammates, it’s battling against players that maybe have a little bit more skill than them and challenging themselves to get to that level each and every night. They’ve got to sell out and block shots. 

“There’s a lot of little things that make those players in the bottom six forwards intangible for your group and both those guys have demonstrated real good abilities. They won their jobs here through the pre-season with their play, with their energy, with their commitment to play within the details of our game.”

To their credit, both Sutherby and Segal are well aware of their role and why they are in the NHL and are content with it.

“I’m never going to be a guy that’s going to go out and score a bunch of goals,” admitted Sutherby, 28, who has notched 10 goals and 18 points in 93 total games since joining the Stars in a mid-season trade with Anaheim back in Dec. 2008, but has 118 penalty minutes over that span. “I’m a hard-working guy and kind of up and down the wing. I need to be a guy that’s aggressive and hard on the forecheck and just be a guy that’s hard to play against, whether that’s being physical or winning battles.”

“I’m a power forward player, I’m just going to do what I can for my teammates,” said Segal, 27, who collected five goals and 10 points in his first 11 games with Dallas, but hasn’t recorded a point in 12 contests since. “I’m going to go in the corners and try to create space for my linemates. Whatever line I play with, I’m going to make sure I go out there and put a lot of pressure on the D-men, try to create as many turnovers as I can and obviously play good, defensively-sound hockey.”

As for Petersen, a speedy, versatile forward that can fill a number of different roles, he is the finesse counter-balance to Sutherby and Segal’s grit on that fourth line. A strong penalty killer who also flashes some skill, Petersen scored a big short-handed goal Monday night against Tampa. 

“He’s a good player because he works and he’s also smart,” Crawford said. “Positionally, he’s terrific. That combination, of being smart and working hard, is pretty powerful and he’s got a little skill to go with it, too. He’s versatile, can play center, can play either wing, can kill penalties for us, so there’s a lot that he can do and we’re really appreciative of the commitment that he’s shown.”

“I think Petey is a do-it-all player, he can jump in any situation, right wing, center, left wing,” added third liner Steve Ott, another gritty agitator who also scored 22 goals last season. “Defensive responsibility - he’s very accountable, and I think that makes him easy to put out there and easy to play. You always see him blocking shots, sacrificing himself and for a guy that can play fourth line, first line, all over, we need guys like that.”

Petersen, who signed a new two-year contract extension last April worth $1.55 million ($750,000 this season, $800,000 next year), is happy to take on whatever task the coaching staff deems necessary.

“I think obviously my versatility helps,” Petersen said of his value to the organization. “It seems like a lot of teams are looking for guys who can fill in with injuries being such a big part of the game. It seems like a guy that can chip in in many different areas is a really good guy. I’m going to keep going out there and doing the same thing. I’m assuming they don’t want me to change anything because I’m here.”

As team-first guys that are also respected voices in the dressing room, each of the foot soldiers are only concerned about club success, and they are eager to help the Stars return to the post-season after missing out the past two years.

“Confidence comes from winning and we missed the playoffs two years in a row,” said Petersen, who celebrates his 32nd birthday next Wednesday. “We need to find the confidence and just be determined. We all need to pull together to get to the playoffs.”

“This year, we have to make sure we cut down on our goals against,” Segal pointed out. “That’s one thing we’ve been really focusing on here. And whether I play eight minutes a game or 15 minutes a game, I’m going to be doing whatever I can for the team to win.”

It’s that do-anything-it-takes attitude that just might be these players’ most valuable contribution to the squad. 

“As a whole group, we need to be tougher to play against,” Sutherby reiterated. “And that just comes down to winning one-on-one battles and wanting it more than the other team, being physical and doing all the little things it takes to win a hockey game.” 

It’s still early, but so far, it’s working.

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