Already missing four regular forwards due to injuries, the loss of their offensive catalyst is definitely another obstacle the team must overcome as it heads out to Western Canada for three games beginning with a date in Edmonton Tuesday night (8 pm start, FSSW).
On an optional practice day held hours before the team plane takes off for the Great White North, coach Marc Crawford broke the bad news.
“Brad Richards will not be coming on this trip with us,” Crawford reported, referencing the Stars’ 2-1 loss to Columbus Sunday afternoon at the American Airlines Center. “He suffered an injury last night on the last shift of the game on a hit in the neutral zone. He’s not feeling 100 percent today. Brad would like to join us, but we think it’s the best measure for him to stay behind and get him back to 100 percent before he rejoins the club. It was the result of a hit that happened in the last few seconds of the game, while the goalie was pulled, and he just does not feel 100 percent. We’re going to be cautious with him and do what we feel is best, not only for Brad Richards, but for the Dallas Stars.”
Crawford went on to explain that after the hit Sunday, Richards still completed the final shift, then spoke to the club’s medical personnel afterwards about not feeling right. He has been examined a couple of times since then.
“If you watched the hit, it was right in the neutral zone, he had the puck and he was just trying to more or less get out of the way, and he was somewhat shaken by it,” Crawford said. “He’s not feeling 100 percent. He did play the entire last shift, but he was not feeling good after the game last night. We talked to him again this morning, our trainers looked at him again this morning, and we’ve all thought that to do what’s best for Brad and to do what’s best for us, the proper procedure right now would be to make sure he just stays home and gets feeling 100 percent, than to put pressure on him to get in the lineup at the moment.”
Clearly, with the Stars struggling through a 2-6-1 slump that dates back to their last trip to Western Canada three-plus weeks ago, this is not a good time to lose the services of their top center, who scored the club’s only goal Sunday to tie for the team lead with 24 and ranks sixth overall in the NHL with 63 points.
Crawford indicated that replacing all the things Richards provides will take a collective effort.
“There’s never good timing for injuries, but because the games are so demanding right now, the games are going to be intense and injuries are part of the game,” Crawford shrugged. “We know we have to play a dig-in type of game and we’re going to have to get great performances from players who don’t generally get great opportunities to play.”
That means guys used to skating on the bottom two lines will get more ice time, such as third-line center Tom Wandell
and newly-signed forward Jason Williams, who made his Stars debut in Sunday’s game, among others.
“Right now, we’ll probably just use Wandell a little bit more,” Crawford said the opening on the top line alongside wingers Loui Eriksson
and James Neal. “I think Jason Williams will get a little bit of power play time and everybody else. You don’t replace a guy like Brad in a short-term thing with just one guy. It’s got to be a whole group effort of guys coming in and giving us a little bit more. James Neal will have to really take on a leadership role, Loui Eriksson
will have to become the leader on that line, and guys that are coming in have to do what’s right.”
“We just got to find a way, even though we’re a little beat up with injuries and stuff, we got to overcome that and just play hard,” added Neal, who hasn’t recorded a point in the last seven games, following a stretch in which he totaled six goals and an assist in the previous seven.
The injury to Richards wasn’t the only one to emerge from Sunday’s game. Defenseman Nicklas Grossman left the contest midway through the first period and remains questionable for the road trip.
“On the other front, Nick Grossman will accompany us on the trip,” Crawford said. “He is doubtful for the next two games. It’s a hip flexor injury that he’s got. We’re hopeful that it will settle down. If it settles down and he’s able to play, then he’ll be back in the lineup. We’re hoping that it settles down sooner rather than later.”
The good news is that several of the injured depth players are getting closer to returning. Defenseman Matt Niskanen, who sat out the past three contests, should be ready for the Edmonton game, while forward Toby Petersen
, who has missed the last 16 outings with a leg injury, will skate in a ‘conditioning stint’ contest for the AHL Texas Stars Monday night and might be back with the big club during the trip.
Three of the other injured Stars - Jamie Benn
(upper body), Krys Barch (orbital bone) and Raymond Sawada
(nose/shoulder) - skated on their own Monday after practice, so hopefully it won’t be too long until they’re able to return as well.
“Thankfully, we’ve added a couple of people back in our lineup,” Crawford said, pointing out how Wandell returned from a four-game absence last week. “Matt Niskanen’s been sore the last few days and hasn’t really been available to us, he’ll be available to us now. Jason Williams, who we just picked up, will get a little bit more ice time, and hopefully down the road, Petersen will become available to us. We just have to dig in right now and we got to play as tight a hockey as we possibly can to give ourselves an opportunity to be effective in these games. We have to concentrate on what we have and what we don’t have and we still think we got a lot.”
And there’s no understating how important these games are. The Stars, who once led the Pacific Division by a comfortable margin, are now tied with Anaheim for the top spot and sit just four points up on 10th-place Calgary, who the Stars face Wednesday night. Then, on Saturday, Dallas returns to Vancouver to face a first-overall Canucks team that has beaten the Stars three times this season by a combined score of 15-3.
“It’s very important to us,” Crawford acknowledged. “Just look at the standings. Between ourselves and being out of the playoffs, we’ve got a four-point cushion and a game in hand. So we’ve got to pick up any point that you can along the way. We’ve got a tough game against Edmonton the first night, that’s the one we got to concentrate on and the old cliche is ‘play them one at a time,’ and that’s certainly how we have to do it. We know what our situation is. Because the games are so competitive, you’re going to have some bumps and bruises along the way, and you just have to deal with it.”
“It’s a tight race and we knew it would be like that,” Neal said. “That’s why you put so much emphasis on the games early in the season so you can bank those points and put yourself in position to stay ahead of teams. It’s a big road trip for us and every game before the playoffs is huge and we have to do everything we can to find points in every game.”