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Unheralded Petersen impressive in playoffs

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

No, center Toby Petersen didn’t just show up from out of nowhere to suddenly fulfill a key role in the Western Conference Finals for the Dallas Stars, but it sure seemed that way.

Petersen, who spent the majority of the regular season toiling for AHL Iowa, the Stars’ top minor league affiliate, worked his way into the Dallas lineup in the playoffs and got an opportunity to play a larger role when a few injuries hit.

When the Stars dropped the first three games of the Western Conference Finals to the Red Wings, coach Dave Tippett looked for ways to shake things up and decided upon an unlikely but ultimately effective strategy - employing Petersen, along with wingers Joel Lundqvist and Loui Eriksson, as a speedy checking line to go up against the Detroit super-line of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom.

“What we were trying to do there, Petersen is a smart player that plays the game with a great deal of pace,” Tippett explained after Game 4. “He’s really quick. Zetterberg and Datsyuk, Zetterberg in particular, he’s so tenacious, plays the game so fast, you need somebody that can keep up with that. We felt Petersen could give us a heck of a game in that regard.”

What made Petersen, a 29-year-old eight-year veteran who suited up for just eight regular season contests after his recall from Iowa on March 4, think he could shut down such explosive offensive stars like Zetterberg and Datsyuk when they’d just scorched the Stars for three points each in Game 3?

“I was told I had to, there wasn’t a choice,” Petersen laughed. “So I just went out there and did my best, trying to keep those guys away from the puck and just not give them too much open ice out there. We tried to make their jobs as tough as we could. They’re great players and they’re going to make plays, we understand that, but we just didn’t want to make it too easy on them, so we were trying to make sure we were making good decisions with the puck and make sure, as a line, we were moving our feet to make life a little bit more difficult on those guys.”

Mission accomplished, sort of. With the Stars facing elimination, the new line limited Zetterberg to just one goal in a 3-1 Dallas victory in Game 4, and then came up big again in Game 5 in Detroit, completely shutting the dynamic duo out (and ending Zetterberg’s nine-game scoring streak) in a 2-1 Stars win that extended the series to Game 6 last Monday.

Many observers could hardly believe how well Petersen played, logging more 5-on-5 minutes than any player on the Stars in Game 5, and how effective he - and his line - was in helping neutralize the Red Wing leaders. But his teammates believed.

“Petersen’s line, it’s no surprise to any of us in our locker room, how well they’ve played,” said goaltender Marty Turco, who also played a part in minimizing Zetterberg’s and Datsyuk’s appearances on the scoresheet in Games 4-6. “Toby is such an intelligent player, has been around a long time. When given the opportunities, he’s always risen. That just shows you the confidence people can take from playing a lot, the responsibility you can give to those you might not think can handle it and they have. They played great. He plays all the situations. It’s no surprise to us, but maybe to some.”

“He’s been a good player, he just hadn’t gotten an opportunity,” Tippett said of Petersen. “But he got into a series where the pace was fast, he’s a fast player, he’s an intelligent player. He got thrust into a situation where he played very well, and when you’re playing against real good players and play well, you’re going to get noticed. He’s a guy that fits in very well with our team, just because he embraces a lot of the characteristics we like in our players - an intelligent, hard-working, unselfish, and he proved that he could do it at a very crucial time for us.”

Despite the fact that the Stars eventually succumbed in six games to the Red Wings, among many other positives, they can take away the knowledge of what Petersen, who may have gotten overlooked earlier in the season, can do when put in the right situation. 

“I don’t know what it was exactly, I just played my game, played the game I know I’ve been capable of playing all along, things just kind of fell into place,” Petersen said of his exemplary performance in the Detroit series. “There were a couple of injuries where guys kind of needed to step up with more ice time. That was a big part of it, just the opportunity was there and I tried to take the opportunity and run with it.”

He certainly did that. After logging over 17 minutes per game in the final four games of the Detroit series (not coincidentally, following the leg injury to Jere Lehtinen), Petersen raised his final ice time average for the playoffs to just 9:45, further demonstrating just how important he became to the club’s fortunes. 

“He’s playing very valuable minutes, playing against top players, and he’s getting the job done for us,” Tippett said after Game 5. “When you talk about players that play the game fast or play with pace, he’s one of those guys that is right there. He’s not a big guy, but is willing to get in the trenches, plays fast. That’s what made him a good player in this series.”

“He played great,” added forward Stu Barnes, another player whose injury (post-concussion symptoms suffered in Game 3 of the San Jose series) opened the door to more ice time for Petersen. “He played very well at both ends of the ice, was just a solid player. He’s a good person, a good character player and a guy that probably over the years has deserved to play in the NHL a lot more than he has. I think he was getting better every game all through the playoffs. He played tremendous.”

After spending a total of 86 games in Iowa over the previous two seasons while a member of the Edmonton Oilers’ organization, which shared the affiliation there, Petersen signed with the Stars as a free agent last July 6. Unfortunately, in training camp, the 5-foot-10, 197-pound Colorado College product seemed to get lost in the Stars’ forward depth and was assigned back to Iowa.

There he flourished offensively, leading the team in goals (21), assists (30) and points (51) in 63 games at the time of his recall on March 4.

“The role was a little different, obviously, here rather than there,” Petersen noted. “There I was relied really heavily to create offense, score goals, set guys up, a lot of power play time. The role changed but the effort was the same.”

Despite his solid season and watching players like Chris Conner, Junior Lessard (since traded to Tampa) and B.J. Crombeen promoted to Dallas ahead of him, Petersen never got discouraged or upset with his situation. He just kept plugging away and waited for the call.

“I knew that my time would come in Iowa,” he said. “They assured me, ‘Just keep working hard, your time will come with Dallas.’ I just took that to heart, stuck with the game plan and sure enough, the opportunity did come.”

“We just didn’t have the room for him, we were trying to push some other people in there,” Tippett said. “He had a very good training camp for us, but his leadership and skills were invaluable to help some of our younger players in the minors and then when he gets up here, he did his job. It was a very good performance from him in the playoffs.” 

Following his recall, he earned an assist in his first game as a Star on March 5, then picked up two more in the final four contests of the regular season. When the playoffs began, he played sparingly on the fourth line, and was scratched for a couple of games in the Sharks series, but as the injuries mounted, his ice time increased. Overall in the post-season, he skated in 16 games, doubling his regular season total.

Petersen’s instant chemistry with Lundqvist and Eriksson in Game 4 against Detroit was impressive, although all three of them had skated together at various times in Iowa over the past few seasons.

“We all played together before,” Petersen pointed out. “Even if we hadn’t played in Iowa, we would have been okay, because they’re just smart players, they’re easy to read. As a centerman, I know where they’re going to be and that makes my job real easy, especially in the defensive zone.  They’re very intelligent players and they’re easy to play with.”

“He’s a really solid player,” Lundqvist said of Petersen. “A good skater, good wrist shot, good passer, and me and Loui had played a lot together, so it felt pretty good to be out there playing with those guys.”

After finding such a hidden gem in their own organization, now the Stars have to work to keep him here, as Petersen will become a free agent again on July 1 and his performance in the post-season has undoubtedly raised his stock.

“He’s a free agent, but I know everybody in our organization likes him,” Tippett said, “so we’ll just have to see where that takes him.” 

“Basically I just leave that up to my agent,” Petersen said, “just let him sift through all the paperwork, all the numbers and all the interest from teams, and then let him report to me and tell me what he thinks and we’ll go from there. As of right now, I have no idea what will happen in the next couple of months. 

“I had a great time here, I loved playing in Dallas. It’s been just a great run and being with these guys in the locker room, it’s just been a real pleasure.”

After the way he rose to the occasion against the Red Wings, the Stars can only agree with that assessment.
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