Just a few weeks ago, the Dallas Stars were considered a good defensive team, but one that had trouble scoring goals, and if they gave up more than two or three a game, they were likely to lose. While the Stars remain a stingy club defensively, their ability to generate offense has been greatly enhanced thanks to the contributions of center Mike Ribeiro and left winger Brenden Morrow.United on a forward line shortly after Morrow returned to the lineup following a 33-game absence due to a wrist injury, Ribeiro and Morrow have been nothing short of dynamic recently. Helping fuel the Stars on an 11-2-2 stretch, both players have stepped up their play and have piled up the points. The club has scored three goals or more in 10 of those 15 games, with a 3.33 average over that span. Prior to that, the Stars had managed just 2.50 goals per game.
A significant portion of the increase can be attributed to Ribeiro and Morrow, who returned on March 17. Starting with the March 18 overtime victory over Phoenix, Morrow has tallied five goals and 10 points in 10 games, including the dramatic game-tying tally with just 6.1 seconds remaining in the third period of Friday night's 2-1 shootout victory over Anaheim. Meanwhile, over that same span, Ribeiro has registered seven goals and 14 points, including back-to-back three-point outings, to vault into the team scoring lead with 59 points.
It took Morrow about a game and a half to get his timing back after the lengthy stay on Injured Reserve, and teaming him with the crafty Ribeiro paid instant dividends for the Stars.
"They've played very well," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "They kind of work off each other. Brenden is a real catalyst, coming up with a lot of loose pucks, Ribeiro is a guy that likes to hold onto the puck. Morrow likes to dig those pucks out and Ribeiro will get in position and Brenden looks to go into places where he can get it back, and it's turned out to be a strong combination."
The two complement each other's strengths well, as the gritty Morrow is strong along the boards and battles tenaciously for loose pucks, delivering crushing checks when necessary, while the elusive Ribeiro handles the puck extremely well and possesses outstanding patience with it, always seeming to find the open man with his slick passes.
Ribeiro's penchant for setting up behind the net with the puck seems to cause chaos for the opposition and he usually creates a scoring chance with a pass out front, or circling out himself to shoot. Ribeiro, who registered just one goal and three points in the nine games prior to Morrow's re-joining the lineup, credits his team captain with providing the spark to elevate his game. "I think with Brenden coming back, it only helps my game playing with Brenden," Ribeiro said. "He's kind of a complete player, so he helps me a lot on the ice. He can score, pass, hit, create some space, and I think it's been good for me that he's come back. I'm just playing better with him than I was before."
Tippett noted that each player has helped bring out the best in the other in different aspects since being paired up.
"I think some of Brenden's work ethic and work habits have rubbed off on Ribeiro and Ribeiro has played very well," Tippett said. "And vice versa, I think Brenden has learned some puck patience and knowing where Ribeiro is going to be and the ability to give it to him and get in position to get it back. They've been a very good pair for us."
Each player deflected praise to the other while reviewing their outstanding attributes.
"He's a strong guy, the way he plays, he controls the puck, too, he plays physical," Ribeiro said of Morrow. "I'm just enjoying myself playing with him. I think it's amazing to see him playing like that. Most of the time, we've been playing hard and creating a lot of chances offensively. I think Brenden is a good defensive player, too, so it helps my game, just stay focused offensively, and I think we've been playing good now."
"I think he's good in the corners," Morrow said of the 6-foot, 178-pound Ribeiro. "It took me a little while - he's not a big, strong guy - to trust that he's going to win those battles and to get open for him, so now I got that trust. Somehow he finds a way, he gets out, he maneuvers the puck so well. Once we get involved in the corners and he has control, I leave him by himself and go find a shooting area."
One thing Morrow has had to adjust to since partnering with Ribeiro is getting ready to receive a pass at all times, even when he's covered, because Ribeiro has a knack for delivering the puck to him anyway. "He's caught me off-guard a lot of times, so that's something I probably haven't done the best," he admitted. "He's really gifted when he has the puck, it follows him around, it sticks to him, and usually, when he gets that extra second to make a play, he'll find the open guy, so you always have to be prepared for it."
Morrow has shown the ability to find Ribeiro with impressive passes, too, as his assist on Ribeiro's goal against St. Louis last Monday night proved. Controlling the puck at the top of the left face-off circle, Morrow seemed to make the Blues think he would shoot, then fed Ribeiro to the right of the crease for a wide open net.
The duo has had a couple of different players skate at right wing on their line, with both rookie Loui Eriksson and Ladislav Nagy taking turns filling that slot. Each has enjoyed offensive outbursts lining up alongside Ribeiro and Morrow. After enduring a difficult stretch where he posted just one assist in 10 games and was a healthy scratch four times, Eriksson plugged into the right side with the pair and promptly registered two goals and five points in three contests.
Nagy, too, re-discovered his offensive touch with the pair after collecting just four points in his first 14 games in Dallas. Then, in a three-game span skating with Ribeiro and Morrow two weeks ago, Nagy picked up five assists. He also had an assist Monday against St. Louis with Eriksson scratched again, and although Eriksson played the majority of Friday's game with Anaheim alongside Morrow and Ribeiro, Nagy joined them in the final seconds of the third and set up Morrow's game-tying goal.
"I like to play with Ribeiro and Brenden," Nagy said. "(Ribeiro) sees the ice very well. He's passing the puck great and he's got soft, nice passes. He needs to do a little bit more shooting, he's passing maybe a little too much, but he sees the ice very well. Morrow, he's great. He's very good in the corners, he's working hard."
As for Nagy's comment about Ribeiro not shooting enough, it appears that he has started to since teaming up with Morrow. In the last 10 games, he has fired 27 shots on goal, an average of 2.7 per game, more than doubling his prior average of 1.2 (on 84 shots in the first 70 games). After connecting for just five goals in the 43 contests before Morrow's return, including a stretch of 22 without any, Ribeiro has seven in the last 10, with two of them game-winners. Overall on the season, he has 18 goals, just two short of his career high set with Montreal in 2003-04. Ribeiro, though, claims his increased goal production is more due to his positioning on the ice rather than how often he shoots the puck.
"I'm just closer to the net, I'm just going to the front of the net," Ribeiro said. "A lot of times there's pucks laying down there, nice passes like (Morrow's against St. Louis), a lot of open nets. I think I've been positioning myself closer or in front of the net, instead of a lot of times, I used to be behind and stay behind, so I'm just trying to get in front of it, tip some pucks and get some goals."
There's no question it has been working for him and that the line's success has helped propel the Stars at the most important time of the year.
"They're a good combination because a lot of it is Brenden's will and work ethic," Tippett said. "He's one of our guys that will go to those hard areas. Mike is the kind of guy who will find those guys. He goes to those spaces and Ribeiro, what he does well, is breaking something down to make an opportunity, and he's in traffic and can beat a guy to open up somebody else. We need more people of that mold."