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Petersen elevating play in important role

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

With the unusually large number of injuries suffered by key members of the Dallas Stars this season, the club has had to thrust others into more important roles than they were accustomed to and one player who has seized his opportunity and thrived with it is center Toby Petersen

After first coming to prominence in last spring’s Western Conference Final series against Detroit when he seemingly came out of nowhere to anchor the Stars’ checking line, Petersen has performed impressively this season. In addition to playing solid two-way hockey, Petersen has recently added an offensive dimension to his repertoire, reeling off a career-long five-game scoring streak that ended last week.

With the Stars facing long-term injuries to such significant offensive contributors as captain Brenden Morrow, veteran Jere Lehtinen and defenseman Sergei Zubov, among others, the Stars have desperately needed guys to jump in and fill the void and Petersen has delivered.

“He’s a utility player for us, we put him in a lot of situations,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “When you have injuries like this, you’re looking for people to get the job done and he’s a guy that’s stepped up and played very well, very similar to the series last year against Detroit - he jumped in there when we had some injuries and played very well.  And that’s where he’s been for the last two or three weeks. He’s skating well, he playing well on both sides of the puck, he’s got rewarded with some points. He’s a guy that, in situations like this, become very valuable.”

For Petersen, who went a full 49 regular season and playoff games, and a total of 20 months, without an NHL goal, and the first 20 games this year with just two assists, his recent outburst of three goals in four games was just a matter of continuing to work hard and perhaps gaining some extra confidence with additional ice time.

“I don’t know,” Petersen said regarding an explanation for his sudden offense. “With all these injuries, there’s more opportunities out there for guys to get some ice time, so I think, obviously, that doesn’t hurt. But it’s just playing with good linemates and some lucky opportunities at the net and getting my body to the net as much as I can. That’s where a lot of the opportunities have come from.”

His goal against Colorado on Dec. 5 clearly illustrates this. Petersen was in front of the net when Mike Modano fired a wrist shot from the top of the left face-off circle, and made a deft waist-high deflection down between Avalanche goalie Peter Budaj’s pads for the Stars only regulation-time goal in a 2-1 shootout victory.

Overall, Petersen, 30, has now accumulated three goals and seven points through 28 games, while also registering a + 2 plus/minus rating, which ranks tied for third among Stars forwards, in 11:28 of ice time per outing.

When you compare that ice time total to the 9:45 he logged in the playoffs or the 7:50 he averaged last regular season, it’s obvious his role has been expanded significantly this year.

“He’s been great,” said Modano, who has been skating on a line with Petersen lately. “He kind of came in real well for us last spring and kind of did some things positive for us and he’s kind of found his niche and his role, doing some good, positive things. He’s a great skater, good, smart guy out there, he’s fit in well.”

It’s been an important contribution from a player who spent almost all of last season in the minors at AHL Iowa before his recall to Dallas in March. Petersen skated in eight games down the stretch, posting three assists, and then took on a more regular role in the post-season, suiting up for 16 playoff games and playing more important minutes as they progressed.

Petersen acknowledged that his success in the playoffs, particularly during the series with Detroit when he helped shut down the Red Wings’ dynamic duo of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk over the final three games, infused him with additional confidence heading into this year.

“Coming in last year in the playoffs and at the end of the regular season as well, definitely helped me kind of realize that I belonged at this level,” Petersen admitted. “I’ve always known that I belonged at this level, but sometimes it helps to kind of reinforce that by going out there and accomplishing something and playing well, so that helped.”

Now in his first full year in the NHL, Tippett has been utilizing Petersen in many different circumstances, including both power play and penalty kill, and the 5-foot-10, 197-pound native of Minneapolis has had a direct impact on the Stars’ fortunes.

“I think Toby’s always been a great player, I think he’s a guy that can do anything,” noted winger Chris Conner, who skated with Petersen last year in Iowa and has spent some time on the same line with him lately. “You can put him in any situation and he can do it, so he’s done really well.” 

“The situations for me haven’t really changed, I’m still used kind of in similar situations that I was before,” Petersen pointed out. “It’s just that there seems to be more of those opportunities and more than anything else, it’s just being able to stay in the flow of the game a little bit easier because you’re out there more regularly.

“As the season’s gone on, I think I’ve become more aware of my responsibilities and what’s expected of me - just more comfortable, I guess, with what I’m capable of doing out there. You come in at the beginning of the season and there’s some question marks and you’re a little nervous and you don’t realize how much time you have with the puck, things like that. It’s good to get in the flow here and get a season under my belt.”

Petersen has admirably filled the role that current Stars assistant coach Stu Barnes, who retired last summer, previously played on the Stars - jack-of-all-trades, a guy that can be plugged into any scenario and perform the task effectively. 

“With us, losing Stu Barnes last year, that’s the value we expected to get out of him, the same kind of thing,” Tippett acknowledged. “From a coaching standpoint, you throw him in any situation, you know he’s going to have a chance of getting the job done. He’s the second face-off guy and that’s similar to what Barnesie did for us last year. Those types of players are very valuable, and they just come so in handy during a game.”

“He’s a good person, a good character player and a guy that probably over the years has deserved to play in the NHL a lot more than he has,” Barnes added. 

With only winger Joel Lundqvist expected back in the immediate future, the Stars will continue to be short of forwards and will need contributions from everyone to stay afloat. There’s no question that Petersen has made that burden slightly less difficult by elevating his game.

“It is what it is, guys have been asked to do a lot more because their roles have increased and their responsibilities,” Modano said. “Some guys have responded good to it.”

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