After sitting out for two weeks as a healthy scratch, Fistric was suddenly thrown back into the intense heat of a playoff race that had been ratcheted up another notch since his previous game, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
With fellow defensemen Nicklas Grossman and Karlis Skrastins sidelined by injuries in the Stars’ 3-2 shootout loss to Philadelphia on March 19, Fistric was called upon to provide his usual steady defensive zone coverage and his intimidating physical presence, and he did not disappoint.
In his first game back after missing five, in Wednesday night’s 4-3 overtime defeat to Anaheim, Fistric was paired up with veteran Brad Lukowich, who was recalled from AHL Texas the day before, and the new duo played a solid game.
Among his total of six hits delivered, the 6-foot-3, 231-pound Fistric had several devastating checks that helped set a feisty tone throughout the night and he and Lukowich each registered +1 plus/minus ratings.
“I felt pretty good, I tried to put the nerves aside,” Fistric said. “I thought the training staff and I worked hard the couple of weeks off that I had, in the gym, and overall, I thought I felt pretty good and the timing is still there.”
“We know he can play, he’s a really good player,” veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas
said. “He’s effective and he’s physical and he brings a different dimension to our team. Against a big, strong and physical team, he’ll be able to handle those guys.”
In their second game together, Saturday’s 4-2 loss at Nashville, Fistric and Lukowich were the only two players on the team to emerge from the contest with positive plus/minus ratings, +1 for each.
As for his adjustment to a new partner he’d never played with before, Fistric thought it went smoothly.
“I think that Luke is a veteran guy and he’s won a couple of championships, he’s been around the block a few times,” noted Fistric, 24, who is playing just his second full NHL season. “We had that same mindset coming in together, keeping it simple and making good plays and not giving up any and for the most part, I thought we did that. We had good communication and we really read off of one another very good.”
“I liked Brad (Wednesday), I thought he made good outlet plays, he wasn’t overwhelmed and we desperately needed him to play that type of game for us,” coach Marc Crawford said. “I thought he and Fistric played pretty good.”
Crawford stressed that the coaching staff did not scratch Fistric from the lineup because they were unhappy with his performance. But when Grossman returned from his previous injury on Mar. 11, the club had seven good, healthy blueliners and someone had to sit out.
“He played very well before he was taken out of the lineup,” Crawford noted. “We have seven really good defenseman here, seven guys that battle hard every night and unfortunately, it wasn’t a case where we were sitting him out because he was disappointing us, we just had one extra spot. Mark played extremely well before we had Nick come back and it was a tough decision to sit him out.”
All told, Fistric has had a solid season, following up an outstanding performance last year, when he led the team by a huge margin with a +27 that ranked 10th in the NHL. While he sports a -4 overall in 2010-11, Fistric, despite skating in just 50 games this season, still sits fifth on the squad in hits, with 146, while his 63 blocked shots are seventh.
“We talked to him an awful lot, just to try and keep him upbeat,” Crawford said of Fistric’s time on the sidelines. “And it’s amazing how quickly situations can change and all of a sudden it has, and now he’s put back in a prominent role and we’re expecting the same type of play that he gave us before that. He plays well in lots of different situations, he’s a very good defender, big strong kid, good on the penalty kill. We know we have lots of confidence in Mark.”
While hearing his coach’s words of praise might have softened the blow a bit, it was still difficult for Fistric to watch from the press box instead of helping his teammates on the ice, but as Crawford noted, he tried to remain as positive as possible. He also maintained his conditioning at a high level, working with strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen and his staff.
“It’s tough, but the guys are really good about it, they make it a lot easier on a guy that’s not playing as much,” Fistric said. “And I think that I worked pretty hard with the strength coaches we have here and I think they did their job in making sure that I stayed in the best shape as possible to come back into the lineup and have a good game. It was a little extra bike and a little more weights and hopefully it’ll pay off.”
“We all go through those stages in your career where you don’t play as much and you’re in and out of the lineup and you sit out for a few games,” Robidas said. “But we all know what he can do. He’s a proven player, he can play in the NHL and he’s proved it. We know exactly what brings and we’re happy to have him back. Obviously, we’re disappointed to see the other two guys going down, but it’s a pretty good option to have a guy like that coming in.”
As for the difficulty of missing a couple of weeks and then being thrust back into a playoff race that grew more intense while he was out of the lineup, Fistric acknowledged it was a task he was ready for.
“The games are so intense and so fast, that it’s tough to sit out that amount of games and come in with 10 games left and so much on the line,” admitted Fistric, the Stars’ first-round choice (28th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. “It definitely makes it a little more difficult, but I kind of get that out of my mind and just treat it as if I haven’t missed any time.”
So far he’s done that, but he knows that with the regular season dwindling away and with the Stars sitting ninth in the West standings, they have to make each one of their final eight playoff-like games count.
“We prepare every game like it’s our last,” Fistric said. “I don’t think that any of us are looking down the road to Game 82, it’s what game’s ahead of us right now.”
The next one comes up Tuesday night in Phoenix (9 pm start, FSSW), and you can be sure Fistric will be ready once again.