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Turco key to club's playoff chances

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

With all the important skaters sidelined with long-term injuries, there’s one player whose performance has become more crucial than ever to the ultimate success of the Dallas Stars - goaltender Marty Turco. 

There’s no question that with the Stars having some trouble scoring goals lately, registering just six in the last five games and 17 in their last 10 since piling up 14 in two games Feb. 6 and 8 against the New York Rangers and Nashville Predators, Dallas is relying on Turco more than ever. 

“I think the focus now, more than ever, it’s going to be a lot on Marty’s shoulders and team defense,” noted team captain Brenden Morrow, who’s been out since November with a knee injury, after Brad Richards’ and Toby Petersen joining him in the training room. “Everyone needs to have that 1-0 mindset to win hockey games. Where we’ve been successful on most nights, we’ve had that mentality.” 

And while the club’s lengthy injury list has contributed to their season-long five-game losing streak - all at home - and sub-par 3-7-0 record over the last two-plus weeks, Turco has remained solid, if not outstanding, surrendering a respectable 20 goals in the nine of those games he played. Included in that stretch have been two 1-0 defeats, and at least two triumphs in which Turco was pretty much the sole reason the club eked out two points.

“Sometimes you play the exact same way and goals happen to go in and you don’t get the one you need at the other end,” Turco said. “There are some things you can’t control.” 

“Marty’s role on the team, he’s a problem solver,” Stars goaltending consultant Andy Moog said. “Regardless of how the team plays in front of him, with his abilities and his experience, he should be able to solve his problems.”

Even as the Stars tread water around the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, there’s no denying that Turco played a major role in the club digging itself out of the Conference basement it inhabited for much of October and November. 

As recently as Jan. 16, the Stars languished as low as 13th in the West, but an 8-2-0 stretch over the next 10 games, in which Turco had the force field up in allowing just 19 goals, Dallas rose up to fifth.

“I don’t think he’s played as well the last couple of games he played, but before that, we went through a stretch where he played very well,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said.  “We had a stretch of games where we were giving up probably more chances than we would have liked and he was cleaning up all the messes.  The last couple of games, we couldn’t find ways to score and I think he could have played better.” 

“A lot of contributing things, my teammates and the way they’re playing, our team defense, but one of the most important things is mental preparation and wanting to do it and striving to be as good as you can be,” explained the 5-foot-11, 189-pound netminder as to his game’s revival after struggling the first couple of months. “I know this locker room has prided itself to get to this point and I’m certainly no different. I was disappointed in how we played and how I played at the beginning of the year and just demanded better. 

“I just didn’t have it. The body wasn’t, on a daily basis, feeling as strong and balanced as I would have liked. Certainly I’ve come a long way and my ability to stay on my feet longer and to react to plays and to second plays or even third plays in a balanced position has been a great feeling for me. I was fighting my body and my muscle memory in movements and I’ve worked hard to get it back on and off the ice.”

Goaltender consultant Andy Moog worked with Turco in practice and pinpointed what he thought the issue was earlier in the season.

“Marty’s problems came when he was unable to wait,” Moog stated. “He was being proactive before there was a play to be made or a save to be made and he was beating himself more often than the opponent was beating him. Once he started being patient and waiting, now all of a sudden, the pucks started coming to him, he made saves look relatively easy, and because of that patience, he was in good position and then when he needed to be very fast and use his reflexes, he was able to do that as well.”

“I worked hard to get my game back, build that foundation to stop some leaks, so to speak, and those things helped carry me and propel me into the way I feel now,” said Turco, the Stars’ fifth-round selection (124th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. “And once the body feels good, and things go well consistently, then you can see the puck real well. It feels real comfortable for me, the ability to track the puck, trust myself to be quick enough on ones where you have to move and find them and where you have to find re-directs or tips or track rebounds. Those things certainly feel a little easier to do than earlier in the year.”

One other additional wrinkle of his stellar play lately has been the fact that he’s been in the crease virtually every night. Until backup Tobias Stephan manned the crease for Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh, Turco compiled a franchise-record 32 consecutive starts, surpassing former Minnesota North Star Cesare Maniago’s previous mark of 23 from 1968-69. With the Stars in the midst of an ultra-crowded playoff chase, Tippett feels the benefits of playing Turco every game outweighs whatever might be gained from resting him more frequently.

“He says he’s feeling the best he’s felt all year right now, so if a little more work makes him play better, that’s not a bad thing,” Tippett said. “You’re just looking at what gives you the best chance to win every night and in our situation, we’ve kind of been in playoff mode here to get ourselves back in the race, he’s obviously our number one guy that gives us the best chance to win, so we’ve been riding him and he’s been playing very well.”

“Playing that many games is tough, mentally and physically and he’s battled hard,” said Morrow, one of Turco’s closest friends. 

For his part, though, Turco insists he’s feeling good and is not wearing down; in fact, he feels better than ever both physically and mentally.

“Physically, I feel real good, couldn’t feel much better right now,” Turco said. “I can tell you first-hand, it’s a lot different from the start of the season until now, mentally. That’s two ways -one, just from a wins/losses perspective, it’s a lot more fun, coming around and winning hockey games, there’s a little less on your plate when you’re putting your head on the pillow at night. 

“The other thing is just the way I’m playing right now. I’m not spending as much energy moving around, or have to work at it in practice as much. It’s easier to get on the ice and get my warm-up stuff and get into practice or get into games, and not have to mentally tax yourself with reminders or things you got to be conscious of as a goalie. Those things seem to be seamless right now in my game and it’s making it a lot easier.”

In addition to his outstanding performance on the ice, which, until he dropped a 4-3 decision Saturday to Anaheim, had seen him fashion an 11-7-0 record with a stellar 1.92 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in his last 18 games, Turco has also provided important leadership in the dressing room. 

“Marty’s a proven guy - there’s nobody that wants it more on a nightly basis than Marty,” winger Steve Ott said. “He’s a goalie but he’s a captain on our team and the leadership is showing through.”

“The thing with Marty, you know he’s an elite goalie and one of the best in the league,” defenseman Stephane Robidas noted. “You know that he wants to win, he wants to be a difference. When you have a goalie like that, that wants to be the difference and wants to be THE guy, that shows a lot. As a player, you’re seeing that, and saying, ‘Okay, he’s going to give us a chance to win, I better be ready to play, at least try to get one or two and know he’s going to shut the door for us.’ I know as a defenseman, it’s so much easier to play in front of a guy like that, and he’s one of the leaders on our team, just his presence.”

One other dimension that Turco adds to the Stars that not many other teams have is his superior ability to handle the puck. His penchant for getting out of his net to corral dump-ins and relay them quickly to his defensemen is extremely valuable and helps the Stars break out of their zone and counter-attack.

“He plays the puck so well,” Robidas marveled. “It’s a big, big difference for us, all the pucks that he can play, it’s amazing. It’s a big plus.”

“The teams that haven’t see him, there are a lot of dumps he gets to that may disrupt their forecheck a little bit,” Tippett added. “You can see they’re getting frustrated.”

Turco has spent considerable time honing that skill of his and sometimes it pays off in assists, as it did on the game-winning goal Feb. 13 in a 2-1 victory over Vancouver. He retrieved a dump-in, quickly fired a pass off the boards up the ice to Loui Eriksson at center ice, and after Eriksson relayed it to Joel Lundqvist, Lundqvist scored. 

“I pride myself in giving our team the best advantage I possibly can and that comes first with making saves, but obviously, moving the puck is in our game plan,” said Turco, whose four assists leads all NHL goaltenders. “We don’t have a playbook or anything, but those plays, what made it happen probably is the anticipation and the skating to get there and the confidence to bank it off the boards just past the (Canucks’) guy. Those are things that I work on. They usually don’t turn out in goals, but if we can get out of our zone and into their zone, it’s to our advantage.”

Of course, there are bound to be the rare situations where a Turco giveaway leads to an easy goal against with him out of the net, as occurred Thursday night against St. Louis, but his coach believes that is a small price to pay for the benefits of Turco’s puck-moving ability.

“When your goaltender handles the puck as much as Marty does, you’re going to get mistakes like that,” Tippett shrugged.

With the Stars among a group of nine or 10 teams battling for the final four playoff spots, the club will continue to need Turco to be at his absolute best down the stretch for them to claim a spot in the post-season. 

“We’ll just continue to watch him and see where he’s at,” Tippett said. “If his game is solid and he’s not tired, why wouldn’t you play him? He gives us our best chance to win. We need everybody playing at their top level to give us a chance to win.”

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