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I Am Legend

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Frequent observers of the Dallas Stars were already well aware that Brenden Morrow was a solid offensive contributor and leader in the locker room, but after delivering numerous virtuoso performances with top-notch leadership and clutch goal-scoring throughout the post-season, now the entire hockey world knows just how good Morrow is.

The growth demonstrated by the second-year captain on and off the ice throughout the course of the 2007-08 season, and especially over the just-completed playoff run, was tremendous.

Heading into the Western Conference Finals, Morrow was being touted by media outlets across North America as a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy for most valuable player in the playoffs. There were even discussions where Morrow was mentioned in the same conversation as legendary Edmonton and New York Rangers captain Mark Messier as the consummate team leader. 

Of course, the humble Morrow finds that kind of talk a little overwhelming, deflecting some of the credit to his teammates - particularly his usual linemate Mike Ribeiro - which just further demonstrates his impeccable character.

“A lot has been said about that,” Morrow said of his career year both on and off the ice. “I don’t think I really did much different. I got better results, pucks were going in for me. I think late last season when Ribeiro and myself got together, we had pretty good chemistry and that just tied over to this year. A lot of guys stepped up and played real well and a lot of people grew, became better players, and if I was one of those, great, but I think we were all pushing.”

There’s no denying that the process that began last season after he assumed the captaincy in Sept. 2006, which really kicked into gear when paired up with Ribeiro in March of 2007, accelerated this year and jumped to another level during the playoffs. 

After a regular season in which he and Ribeiro assumed top-line status and delivered career-best numbers - Morrow collecting a team-leading 32 goals along with 74 points - his post-season performance was the stuff of legend. Morrow led the club with nine playoff goals, including two overtime game-winners, and finished second to Ribeiro with 15 points.

He was always the hardest-working Star on the ice, he never quit battling and the club began to take on that persona as the playoffs wore on. One testament of his commitment to do the difficult little things necessary to win is that he registered an unbelievable 260 hits, third in the NHL, during the regular season and another 90 in the playoffs, which, as of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, still led the league.

Another example of his on-ice leadership: after the Stars won the first two games of the first round in Anaheim, the Ducks built up a 4-0 lead in Game 3 heading into the third period, but despite the seemingly insurmountable deficit, Morrow refused to lay down and led the way with two goals to instill belief in the Stars that they could indeed overcome any deficit. They didn’t complete the comeback in that game, but the momentum gained from their revival carried over into Game 4, when the Stars triumphed 3-1 and pushed the defending champion Ducks to the brink of elimination.

“He’s become the leader on and off the ice of this team,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s the guy that will will the other team to quit. He will will his teammates by just challenging them with his work ethic. If he’s going to lead and play the way he does, everybody else better jump on the same bandwagon.”

“He took the team under his wing and said ‘follow me,’ and when you have a guy that does that, it’s not hard for the other guys to just get on board and go with him,” added co-General Manager Brett Hull. “He always was a great worker and that part of his game was never in question. And the way he stepped up and is learning to score, he’s just scratching the surface on his offensive abilities and with the connection that he and Mike Ribeiro have, that’s only going to get better.” 

As for his clutch goal-scoring, consider this: Dallas had lost six playoff overtime contests in a row before Morrow netted the game-winner in Game 5 of last spring’s first-round series against Vancouver, keeping the Stars alive in the series and allowing them to rebound from a 3-1 deficit to eventually force a seventh game. Since the OT losing streak, Dallas is 4-1 in extra time, with Morrow scoring three of the game-winners and providing a screen on the other (Mattias Norstrom’s winner in Game 3 of the second round against San Jose). 

And, of course, it was Morrow who ended the eighth-longest game in NHL history on May 4, clinching the series against the Sharks in the fourth overtime of Game 6, a contest in which he logged an unbelievable 51 minutes of ice time, fired seven shots on goal and registered an NHL-record 19 hits. Overall in the post-season, Morrow averaged 23:16 of ice time per game, third in the league among forwards.

“He’s established himself as the lead guy on our team,” Tippett said. “The way he plays with a commitment to winning, it’s just how our organization wants to be perceived.”

Morrow also played the entire Western Conference Finals against Detroit injured, battling through a strained groin suffered in Game 1 and a shoulder injury sustained in Game 3. Despite those ailments, Morrow’s effectiveness hardly suffered, as he still managed two goals and four points in the series.

“Brenden hasn’t been the same since the last San Jose game,” Tippett revealed after Game 6. “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.”

“Injuries are a big part of the game,” Morrow shrugged. “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. I think every guy back there had something wrong with him, it was just two tough series against Anaheim and San Jose took a lot out of us.”

His shoulder, injured when he missed on a bodycheck and rammed into the end boards, did not require surgery to repair. 

“The tear was in the muscle, I don’t think there’s any structural damage there,” Morrow said, typically down-playing its severity. “Rest will hopefully heal it. It really looked worse than it feels. It wasn’t as bad as it looked.”

That kind of leadership is something this team clearly needed, and with Morrow pulling them along, the Stars advanced further into the post-season than they had since Morrow’s rookie season in 2000, when they lost to New Jersey in the Final, with Hull playing a leading offensive role.

“The leadership, from Brenden and the whole group, the way they stepped up and took control of the team and led us through the playoffs, was something I think was missing a little bit,” Hull said. “That take-charge attitude that we saw was great to see. I think you saw a lot of playoff demons cast away.”

Even the opposing coach, when assessing what made the Stars so difficult to defeat, mentioned Morrow first.

Brenden Morrow to me is what you want leading your team,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said following Game 6 of the Western Finals. “I like their back end. Good young kids there. Good goaltending. I think they’ve really improved their team as far as youthfulness. They’ve got good depth. They’re here for the long run. With the kind of job that Tippett does, they’re going to be competitive every year. We feel good about beating them.”

With Morrow just now in his prime at 29, the future of the Stars looks very bright with him leading the way.

“When you have a guy with Messier/Iginla-type leadership and toughness and with the ability to score 35-40 goals, there’s a great piece of the puzzle right there,” Hull said.

“We’re improving,” Morrow said. “We made good strides this year. We’d all still like to be playing right now, but it just makes you realize how hard it is, how hard you’re going to have to work to get back to where we were. But we feel real good about ourselves. The core is returning. There’s always going to be some change, I’m sure the brass will get together and hash something out and find ways to improve the team, but I’m proud of every one of those guys in there, so I don’t really see any holes in there.”

Just the way he talks about his teammates demonstrates how far he has evolved as the undisputed leader of this club. With a talented team following a still-developing Morrow, the building blocks are there for the Stars to reach the ultimate goal next season.

“We have kind of a new leadership group on our team that has really taken hold of the group, so there’s a lot of positives,” Tippett said. “Recognize the work we put in and how hard it was to get to where we were and recognize how hard it’s going to be to take that next step. The next step is the one we all want to take.”
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