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Ribeiro finishes tough year on a positive note

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

To say that Dallas Stars center Mike Ribeiro had an up-and-down 2009-10 season would be quite the understatement. 

For Ribeiro, who led the Stars in scoring the previous three seasons, it was a roller-coaster ride filled with spurts of excellence mixed in with bouts of inconsistency and self-doubting, a harrowing injury, and a strong finish. His rock-solid chemistry with captain Brenden Morrow wavered a bit as each battled through confidence issues at various times during the season. 

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Ultimately, though, the 6-foot, 180-pound native of Montreal played his best hockey down the stretch, following his return from a 15-game absence due to a scary neck injury. Over his final 23 games, Ribeiro registered nine goals and 20 points, leaving him with solid full-season totals of 19 goals and 53 points, which ranked fourth on the squad, in 66 contests. 

“I don’t know exactly, maybe trying to do less, playing better positioning, play smarter with the puck, better focus than I had before,” Ribeiro said, listing reasons for his improved performance after coming back on Feb. 9. “I was thinking less.  In the first (40-plus) games, I was thinking too much on trying to put some different game styles with my game and trying to figure out how to put them all together. Once I came back after my injury, I tried to come back to basics, playing well defensively and if you do that, things should be good. I think at first, I was trying to change the game and create more than I should have. When I came back, I had to simplify my game and I played much better.”

One other factor in Ribeiro’s late-season resurgence was the insertion of Brandon Segal at right wing on Ribeiro’s line with Morrow. Segal, who was claimed off waivers from Los Angeles two days after Ribeiro returned to the lineup, provided another gritty, abrasive presence on the line, while also displaying some impressive skill. Before that, there was pretty much a revolving door on the right side, and there were even times when coach Marc Crawford split Ribeiro and Morrow up. 

“We didn’t really have our line all year,” said the 30-year-old Ribeiro, who just completed his fourth season in Dallas. “When you play with wingers for a while, you know what they do and don’t do. The game gets easier. It was harder to play with different players and try to figure out what they do and don’t do. You get frustrated by the details of the game.”

“We started to feel good later on, plays were developing,” noted Morrow, who had an up-and-down year himself after missing most of 2008-09 with a knee injury. “We just didn’t have much consistency on that one wing, I think that was different than in years past. It would be Jere (Lehtinen) for the year or Loui (Eriksson) for months at a time.”

Both Ribeiro and Morrow took on some of the responsibility for the rough season experienced by the other, as each struggled with shaken confidence throughout the year.

“For me, personally, struggling with confidence shooting the puck and just how I feel out there was an issue,” Morrow said of the duo’s overall performance.

“I didn’t play with confidence all year and I guess it showed up in the shootouts,” added Ribeiro, who went a mystifying 1-for-12 in shootouts this year after scoring on 11-of-25 attempts in the three previous seasons. “For the wingers to play well, a lot of times the center has to do his job right, and I don’t think I helped him on that. We bounced all over with lines. But I think at the bottom of it is confidence, and if you don’t have the confidence to play well, you’ll have a season like we did. It’s a matter of being prepared mentally and making yourself believe in yourself.”

Ribeiro also seemed to have some trouble early on adapting to Crawford’s more aggressive offensive system.

“There’s a lot of new details to the game, a different style that Marc wanted and trying to input it in your game obviously took us a while to get adapted to it,” Ribeiro said. “There was a little bit of confusion. I didn’t really know what kind of role I had after 20 games. I wasn’t sure anymore. There was a lot of frustration too, just trying to figure out how to get out (of the slump). The only thing to do is work at it and become better prepared mentally for anything that can happen during the year and not get my head off what I’m supposed to do. Not playing well the first part of the year gets to your head. You ask yourself questions. But all of that together, I had to overcome that, try to get my head straight and just play the game. I did that in the second half.”

Then there was the scary injury, on Jan. 6, at Madison Square Garden in New York. The stick of Ranger Chris Higgins inadvertently speared him in the throat as the two passed each other at center ice, fracturing the cartilage surrounding his trachea.  It looked horrific immediately, although it was never life-threatening. 

“Potentially, it could have been terrible, but the way it was at the time, it was very manageable,” said Stars head athletic trainer Craig Lowry, who attended to Ribeiro on the ice. “The doctors there in New York were awesome. We took an x-ray to rule out any gross injuries, and based on what they saw on the x-ray, they weren’t going to allow him to fly until he had a full work-up, which included a CT scan, and the only way to do that is at the hospital. The scar on his neck is because of the tracheotomy he had, but he actually had a fracture in his cartilage, that’s what the problem was. That’s the support structure of the trachea. His airway was not closed and it was compromised to an extent, but not to the extent that there was any emergency situation. He ended up not having surgery until midnight and that was after lots of different exams.”

Rehabilitating such a delicate injury primarily comprised of a lot of sitting around and resting for Ribeiro, because physical exertion of any kind was not allowed for the first four-plus weeks after surgery.

“The healing process was six weeks and there was really no leeway on that - usually four-to-five weeks before he could do anything active,” Lowry explained. “You couldn’t get the heart-rate up, you certainly couldn’t do any sort of weight lifting that would put a certain amount of stress around his neck, and then you don’t want to put him in a situation where something could fall on him. You weren’t going to let him do a bench press with the barbell.”

When Ribeiro finally did get back on the ice, he did so with a renewed vigor and re-established himself as a key offensive component to the Stars’ attack, even though he wasn’t immediately at 100 percent.

“When I got back, a few times, a few games, it didn’t feel comfortable, it felt like something was still wrong, but now it feels good,” said Ribeiro, who scored three goals and five points in the three games he got in before the Olympic break, helping the Stars go 2-0-1. “Just the fear of getting hurt again is not in my head again, so that’s good.  I’m healthy now and I can breathe. The thing is, at the end of a shift, I cannot scream at the refs any more, because I’m out of breath.”

“He did very well to come back from it and not have hesitation in his game and do the things he was doing,” Morrow noted. 

While he did encounter a bit of an off-ice hiccup when he was late for a team meeting and was subsequently scratched from a game at Anaheim on March 29, Ribeiro and the team put it behind them and Ribeiro resumed his old creative, crafty ways on the ice down the stretch.

“It’s over with and we move forward, and Mike, I’m sure, will move on and play very well for us,” Crawford said following the incident. “Him playing with Brenden Morrow and Brandon Segal has been very good for us 5-on-5. On the power play, Mike is showing himself to be amongst the elite in the league. He’s got that poise with the puck that you need on power play situations.”

Speaking of the power play, Ribeiro points to the Stars’ shaky performance killing off opposing power plays (Dallas ranked 27th in the 30-team league with a 77.4 percent kill rate) as one of the key reasons they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the second straight season. After adding PK duties to his repertoire this season, he hopes to be a key part of correcting those issues and never having to experience the stinging feeling of missing the post-season again.

“Special teams will be important. You can’t have a PK that’s 30th in the league and expect to make the playoffs,” Ribeiro said. “I think you need to be in the middle range in both power play and PK if you want to make the playoffs and we didn’t do that.

“It is disappointing. It’s back-to-back years, so it’s even worse when it happens two years in a row. I expected a lot more in the beginning of the year and it didn’t happen. I’m disappointed and frustrated at the same time. I don’t want to be in that position again.”

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