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Stars leaning on leadership group when times get tough

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

With the Dallas Stars in the midst of an intense playoff race, now is the time when their strong group of leaders is needed to step forward and help keep the club on track as the games get tougher down the stretch.

That doesn’t just mean captain Brenden Morrow standing up in the dressing room and giving an inspirational Herb Brooks- or Al Pacino-like speech, either. A significant group of players have to be involved in the process and many different aspects go into the leadership role and what it entails to help the club play their best when the pressure mounts.

Coach Marc Crawford cites several players who have emerged as leaders, such as a veteran like Jamie Langenbrunner who has won two Stanley Cups or even younger players that have excelled on the ice lately, like Jamie Benn, who scored the Stars’ only goal Tuesday night in their 2-1 shootout loss in Phoenix, and recently-acquired defenseman Alex Goligoski, who has led the squad in ice time since his arrival last month.

“I think everybody has to be a leader right now,” Crawford said, “whether it’s our captain group - Brenden Morrow, Stephane Robidas, Brad Richards, Steve Ott, the leaders that we’ve brought in here, people like Langenbrunner, who for sure has really been a vocal guy for us. And then you need leadership from your younger people, too - I think you’re seeing the emergence of great young leaders for us in players like Benn and Goligoski for sure. In some cases, Goligoski just got here and he’s still acclimating himself with the group, but you can see how he’s striving and the leadership that he’s showing is on the ice.” 

“I think this time of the year, your veterans become the guys that bring you to the next level,” noted Ott, one of those leaders in his eighth NHL season. “For us, we have to hold each other accountable in here, we have to lead - you win and die by your old guys sometimes. Collectively, this time, the most important time, is when you see the experience take over.”

Langenbrunner, who won Cups with Dallas in 1999 and New Jersey in 2003, acknowledges that this is a particular area of his expertise.

“I think that’s a lot of why I’m here,” said Langenbrunner, 35, who rejoined the club in a trade on Jan. 7. “I’ve been through a lot of these situations, playing these pressure games, which we’ve been in awhile. And it’s not always going to go your way in every situation, it’s how you respond and right now, we’re giving ourselves an opportunity every game. I think everybody in the locker room is pulling in the same direction, and we’ve got to continue to do that.”

And although things have looked somewhat dire lately for the Stars, who are winless in their last four (0-1-3), just 1-3-3 in their last seven and now sit three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the veterans look to keep the rest of the dressing room calm and confident.

“If you start not doing what you normally do, other people will look around and recognize there’s some problems, ” points out Richards, who won the Stanley Cup, along with the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, with Tampa Bay in 2004. “And that’s when young guys or other players who aren’t used to these situations, that’s when they start feeling more pressure. Right from the coaching staff to the leaders to the young guys, you just try to keep your head up, smile and really bring a good attitude to the rink every day. If you don’t, it’s an awful feeling and you won’t play as good. You just can’t play when your mind is racing. It’s hard. Your mind doesn’t race when things are going well, so you’ve got to find it as quick as possible to get it back to a clear mind.”

“Everybody’s excited to play in the games, it’s a little bit more to calm things down,” noted Langenbrunner, who has elevated his game lately with six points (one goal, five assists) in the last eight games. “When the guys get a little tense, a little too fired up, a little anxious, it’s, ‘Stay relaxed, stay within ourselves, stay with the game plan and it’ll happen.’ I think we’ve done a lot of good things in this last little stretch. We haven’t finished the games the way we’ve wanted to, but we’re putting ourselves in those opportunities and giving ourselves that chance and we feel if we continue to do the right things, it’s going to go our way in the end.”

Part of propping up the confidence requires keeping their emotions in check - maintaining that even keel, win or lose, is a key part of what the leadership core provides in times like these.

“That’s the main thing, don’t get too low if you lose a game and don’t get too high if you win one,” said defenseman Stephane Robidas, who clanked a wrist shot off the crossbar in overtime Tuesday before the club lost in the shootout. “You got to stay level, you can’t expect things to go your way all the time. The bounce sometimes won’t go your way and you just got to stick with it. I think that’s our job, that would be the main thing for leadership.” 

Sometimes when the results aren’t quite where they want them, players can have a tendency to maybe try too much, and wind up getting out of their regular game rhythm and ultimately end up hurting the squad, so that’s another thing the leaders look for and try to counteract.

“You always want to do a little bit more, but a lot of times when you try to do a little bit more, you do a lot less,” noted center Mike Ribeiro, who has totaled four goals and 13 points in the last 10 games. “It’s really to play strong positionally and if you do that and play well defensively, your chances of winning will increase.” 

“I think experience makes a big difference, just going through different experiences,” said Richards, the Stars’ leading scorer with 69 points, despite missing 10 games with concussion-like symptoms recently. “And you’ve got to be realistic sometimes. I’m not Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky so some days, you got to rely on your teammates and get help from them. We help each other, the successes we’ve had, it’s been together and we’ve got to keep doing that.”

The notion that, if each individual does his part every night, the collective result will be positive is another theme the club leaders have been stressing. After all, it’s that type of teamwork that got them this far.

“You need everyone to do their job and stay in the system and do your role,” Ribeiro said. “You need your 20 guys to all do their job. Yeah, you need your six top forwards to create a little bit more offensively, but you need all four lines and the six D to play well defensively. I think every game that we did that, that we played well defensively and didn’t give those guys chances through the middle of the ice, we played much better and most of those games we won.”

“For us, we have to make sure that every single guy is going,” noted Ott, who ranks third in the league with a career-high 183 penalty minutes and eighth in hits with 236. “Our best players have to be our best players, the role players have to play their role and the young guys have to step up as well”

“It’s not a matter of one guy doing it all, I think it’s a team effort, and it’s been that way all year,” added Robidas. “It’s all the guys, even guys that are not in the lineup, they’re part of the team and that’s what’s made our team successful all year.” 

This is also the time when the camaraderie of a close-knit group, which the Stars have appear to have been all season long, pays off, because the players really don’t want to let each other down.

“They care for each other,” Crawford said. “They want to play hard for each other, they want that common goal and they’re going to strive to do whatever they can to get it.” 

“The belief is always there,” Ribeiro said. “Last week, we cannot change it, but we can change what’s coming up, and if you stay positive and still believe it - I know there’s a lot of people that don’t believe in us, and a lot of people around here too, but we’re a group here that’s going to stick together. We’ve been sticking together all year and we’ll keep doing that and keep believing.”

On top of all the stress of running into a bit of a hiccup while in the midst of such a hard-fought playoff chase, especially after they failed to qualify for the post-season the previous two seasons, the Stars players are still enjoying the intensity. After all, this is what they play for.

“We’re playing meaningful games - it doesn’t matter where you are or what night it is, your awareness and your energy level is there,” Richards said. “Now it’s just getting your brain to channel that in the right direction and do the right things that way. It’s not like playing January 5th on a Tuesday night in a half-full building somewhere where nobody’s watching, that’s a little bit different. These games are all big, no matter what, so it’s a lot easier coming to the rink and have that energy level and have that focus.” 

“I don’t think anybody needs to be pumped up at this time of year,” Ott said. “This is the time that we compete for. That’s why we play 82, to get to games like these that are the important ones and continue to have that fun atmosphere. The goofy characters we’ve had all year, nothing’s changed, we want to be that strong team with a strong focus and commitment to each other.” 

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