It’s likely that the timing is a coincidence, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that once right wing Jere Lehtinen was moved onto a line with captain Brenden Morrow
and center Mike Ribeiro
, he started scoring goals again.
Lehtinen, who led the Dallas Stars with 26 goals in 2006-07, but had none - and three assists - in this season’s first seven games, has now popped in goals in three-straight games since being shifted to a line with Morrow and Ribeiro.
After missing all of the Stars’ pre-season games with a shoulder injury, it is probable that Lehtinen just needed a few games to get his legs under him, regain his timing and conditioning back to their usual lofty levels. But there’s no denying the impressive chemistry the new line has displayed together.
“He’s really starting to push forward,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said of Lehtinen. “You miss training camp, that’s missing a few steps there. He’s so methodical in his approach and how he goes about preparing for games, and he’s starting to get it back. Hopefully that continues to propel him along.”
Upon first moving to his new line in the Stars’ 3-1 victory Oct. 20 over defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim, Lehtinen scored a goal and assist that night, added the Stars’ only goal in a 2-1 loss to the Kings Thursday, and then registered another goal and assist in Saturday’s 5-3 win over Phoenix.
Meanwhile, both Ribeiro and Morrow have been equally prolific in those three games, with Ribeiro scoring two goals and four assists while Morrow has compiled one goal and five assists.
“He’s easy to blend in,” Ribeiro said of Lehtinen joining them. “He’s a guy that works hard, fore-checks hard, he does everything good on the ice. He’s an example for everyone, and to have our top scorer from last year get his confidence back, is just huge for us.”
Like most players who have skated with Ribeiro, Lehtinen has had to make subtle adjustments on the ice, like making sure he’s ready at all times for a pass to come his way.
“He’s a good player - when he has the puck, you know he can do a lot of different things,” Lehtinen said of Ribeiro. “It’s fun to play with him. Just find a place and get there and the puck is coming, because he can make those passes wherever he is. A lot of skill there to keep that puck and protect it, a lot of guys go to him, and then he passes and finds guys wide open. I think it’s going good so far.”
Morrow agrees that Ribeiro is the creative catalyst for the group.
“It’s pretty easy, I go to my spots and the puck usually ends up there,” Morrow said. “He looks like you can knock him off the puck, but he’s pretty strong. He protects it well. You don’t have to get in to help him, because he’s kind of elusive and he gets out of checks pretty good. You’ve got to trust that he’s going to make the play, give him his space and try to get open. He slows things down and he gives you time so you can get into space where you can score and he’ll find you there.”
“He’s continued to build,” Tippett said of the 6-foot, 178-pound Ribeiro, who led the Stars with 59 points last season. “He’s a guy that came in and had to find his niche on our team. He’s really a guy that adds a lot of offensive creativity to our lineup. He’s really bought in to our team defensive concept a lot more. Him and Brenden Morrow
have found a little connection together that is very positive for us. He creates opportunities through his poise with the puck and that’s a big asset to our team.”
It seems that Morrow has even picked up a few things from Ribeiro, as Morrow has dished off a few nice Ribeiro-esque passes in recent games for assists, like his feed from behind the net to Lehtinen in the slot for the goal Thursday in LA, or his cross-ice set-up for Ribeiro’s slam-dunk in Phoenix.
That just gives the 28-year-old captain another dimension. Of course, Tippett still views Morrow’s biggest asset as his ability to outwork the opposition’s defense in front of the net.
“He’s a power forward, he has an effect on the game and when he can impose his will on the other team in the offensive zone and find a few goals, that’s strong play on his part,” Tippett said. “I guarantee that when the other team comes out of a game, they know that they’ve been in numerous battles with Brenden around the front of the net for loose pucks. That’s where we need him to be.”
As much as he thinks Lehtinen has enhanced his line, Morrow also believes the 34-year-old three-time Selke Trophy winner would flourish no matter who he skated with.
“You could play Jere with anyone and he’s going to fit in, he’s just that type of player,” Morrow said. “It just makes everyone better. Ribs and I have had chemistry, but Lehts just makes that line a ton better. He’s doing the things that we’ve relied on him that kind of get overlooked, a lot of the little things that make our team successful - he’s back doing those and it’s probably just a lot to do with the timing and missing a few of those pre-season games. He’s always in good position. But you could play Jere with anyone and he’s going to look good.”
With Lehtinen chipping in with three goals and five points in the last three games, the Dallas offense has gotten a nice boost from the entire line’s production. Out of the nine total goals the Stars have scored in those contests, that trio has factored into eight of them, including helping Modano get untracked with a goal and assist of his own Saturday in Phoenix when he joined them on the ice.
“We’re a team that scores by committee and we need everybody contributing to be successful,” Tippett said.
But as the club continues its stretch of four-straight games (and 10-of-11) against Pacific Division opponents (2-1 so far) with a match Monday night against San Jose at the American Airlines Center (7 pm, VERSUS, News/Talk 820 WBAP), the 5-3-2 Stars will take the goals from wherever they can find them. If the new combination can continue to produce during this crucial stage of the schedule, the Stars, who are now tied for first in the Pacific with LA as San Jose lurks one point back and Anaheim three, will be in good shape.
“The slows starts that we’ve had, Anaheim’s had, it just kind of makes the competition tougher now,” Morrow said of the divisional race. “You look at (these contests) as four-point games and we’d like to get a jump here and take advantage and kind of get a little bit of a head start on these teams, if we can keep this thing rolling and play 60 solid minutes consistently.”