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With barrage of injuries, Stars must rely on depth

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Dallas Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk signed seven free agents this past summer with the stated goal of improving the organization’s depth, and after suffering a spate of injuries recently, that additional depth will be severely tested.

Tomas Vincour
With several key Stars out for at least a couple more weeks, including starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen and top defenseman Alex Goligoski, the squad faces a challenging December. But it is also a prime opportunity for some other players to step up and shine with some additional ice time and responsibility.

“Guys can lay in their beds at night and say, ‘If I could just do this or if I could just do that, or if I got this’ - well, you’re going to get it now,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “I think at the end of the day, after the next couple of weeks, we’ll have a clearer picture of what our team looks like and what our depth looks like. We can talk about it but now we test it. That’s when you’re going to see what kind of team we have, what kind of depth we have and who fits where.”

If the Stars’ inspiring 3-1 triumph over Colorado Monday night while missing five important players is any indication, the remaining guys in the dressing room are confronting the scenario head-on.

Besides backup netminder Andrew Raycroft’s sparkling 35-save performance in goal, Dallas received important contributions from players such as third-line forwards Eric Nystrom and Vernon Fiddler, 21-year-old rookie defenseman Philip Larsen, and winger Michael Ryder, who scored two goals while gutting it out on a twisted ankle.

“I felt great and I feel like I am doing the right things,” said Raycroft after the victory, his first of the season. “It’s nice to get a win. It’s just as important to have all the guys believe in me and know that I can get wins for them.”

“It was huge for Razor to get that, we’re happy for him to get that win,” added Ryder. “It seemed like when he came in there, we never played our best games. You need two goalies during the season to help you win. He’s been there for us, supporting us even though he doesn’t play as much as Kari. We need him now and we showed him that we really want to play for him.”

Also jumping up the depth chart has been 21-year-old winger Tomas Vincour, who was recalled Nov. 20 from AHL Texas and has filled in admirably for captain Brenden Morrow, who has been sidelined four games with an upper body injury. Assuming Morrow’s spot alongside Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott on the second line, Vincour hasn’t yet reached the scoresheet in the five games since the recall, but is clearly making a positive impression with his rambunctious style.

So is Larsen, who earned an assist Monday and now has two assists in the last three contests. The offensive-minded defenseman, who totaled 10 points in 10 AHL games before his recall on Nov. 12, has flourished in a more substantial role, including time on the power play. He even logged a career-high 25:50 of ice time last Saturday night in Phoenix, second-most on the squad.

“You give him some PP and you can see that he’s a skater and he can get up there and Lars is adjusting fine,” Gulutzan said. “I thought he played another strong game for us and he defends hard and he skates and he can close, so he’s done well.”

Larsen has helped fill some of the offensive, puck-moving role supplied by Goligoski and became even more important the last couple of games with Trevor Daley forced out of the Phoenix game with a back injury. Daley is expected to return soon, perhaps in time for Thursday’s contest at home against Ottawa (7:30 pm start, FSSW).

The injuries on the blueline have also provided a chance for Adam Pardy, who hopes to take on more of a regular role after sitting out as a healthy scratch four straight games and seven times over the previous 11 before logging 18:50 of ice time Monday, his second-highest total of the season.

“It’s just the nature of the game, there’s always injuries, every team goes through times like this where you got to count on your depth,” said Pardy, who recorded his first assist as a Star Monday. “There’s going to be opportunities, it’s just a chance to play a little bit more minutes, which is always a good thing. The more you play, the more you get rolling, the better you play, so it’s an opportunity personally for each guy and for the team to really come together and show that we are playing a team game and we have some depth here.”

At forward, center Jake Dowell is in a similar situation, looking for more playing time and a chance to increase his role while Adam Burish, out for another 2-3 weeks with a broken hand, and Morrow, who is expected back shortly, sit out.

“Obviously, you never want to see teammates get injured, but it’s a thing that happens every year and I need to take advantage of it,” admitted Dowell, who has been scratched six times over the past 14 games, including Monday in Colorado. “I’ve been wanting to feel like I’m a bigger part of the team, and I don’t want to be a guy that’s in and out of the lineup. That’s not a feeling I like, and so this is something I want to take advantage of and really try to help the team in any way that I can. I know it’ll come just by playing hard and just filling any role the team needs.”

Gulutzan is quick to point out that receiving contributions from everyone on the roster is crucial. That includes guys like Pardy, Dowell and Krys Barch that sit out as healthy scratches on a regular basis, because in situations like this, the Stars need to be able to plug them into the lineup and not see a drop-off of performance.

“We need everybody. Our slogan is ‘every day counts and everyone matters’ and if we stray away from that, you can see what happens,” Gulutzan said, referring to the team’s five-game losing streak a couple of weeks ago. “We need all hands on deck to get wins. This is a tough league and we’re going to need that consistently.”

Getting goals from the third line, as well as the fourth occasionally, is also critical, especially while the lineup is depleted. So far, so good in that area, as Nystrom, Fiddler and Radek Dvorak, besides providing gritty defensive play, have also been producing at an impressive rate lately, with Nystrom’s goal Monday giving him eight on the season, third on the club behind only Ryder’s nine and Loui Eriksson’s 10.

“He’s been playing great since he arrived over here,” said Dvorak, who has four points (two goals, two assists) over the last five outings, regarding Nystrom’s impact. “Obviously, he’s got a touch for goals, he’s always in the right spot and has great timing. We have to just keep on working on our game. Our game is speed and just working hard, and we have to keep doing that and going to the net.”

“That whole line plays with an identity, they work like dogs every night and we’re very happy with the way they play for us,” Gulutzan said. “I don’t know what you can say about that line, they bring it every night. They have passion and they skate and they work and they’re all-in every night. They’re a real effective group for us and they help us a ton.”

Gulutzan also made sure to stress that the team will not be altering its high-tempo style of play in favor of something more conservative while so many top contributors are out of the lineup.

“No, we’re playing the same game, we’re not going to do anything different,” Gulutzan vowed. “We’re going to play the same. We’ve got a day, a little bit of rest here to recoup and we can come out with some energy (Thursday) and we’ve got to come out with some juice.”

But as much as the depth among skaters will be scrutinized over the upcoming stretch of games, the spotlight will be concentrated brightest on the crease, where Raycroft will see the bulk of the action after making just four starts over the first 23 games of the season before relieving Lehtonen in Phoenix.

“I’ve been a starter in the league and to be honest, feel more comfortable with it most of the time,” said Raycroft, a 10-year NHL veteran who boasts 276 NHL games, and 112 victories, on his resume. “You can get into a bit of a rhythm. I don’t know quite how it will go, but it looks like I’ll get a couple of games in a row at least, which will be nice to feel a rhythm and just get the pace of play down and get better reads, so I’m looking forward to that.”

“He’s always been ready every time he’s been asked to go in the net,” defenseman Stephane Robidas said of Raycroft. “He’s been a number one before in this league and he’s still a really good goalie and we’re fully confident in him.”

The Stars also recalled Richard Bachman from AHL Texas on Tuesday to back up Raycroft and Gulutzan pointed out that as much as he is counting upon Raycroft, he would also feel comfortable utilizing the 24-year-old Bachman if the situation warranted it.

“We’ve got full confidence in Razor to get it done and take us to where we need to go,” said Gulutzan. “And we’ve got Bacher up here too, who played really well in the pre-season. We feel we’ve got depth here in the organization. We’ve got Razor here for a reason and we’ve got Bachs here as well, consistently in the American Hockey League a top-four netminder last year.

“Obviously, it’s a big blow (losing Lehtonen for an extended period), but it’s not one that we’re all doom-and-gloom about. We hope he gets back quick, we need our number one goalie, but that’s why we’ve got other goalies.”

It’s all been part of the organization’s long-term plan to bolster the team’s ability to withstand a slew of injuries to key personnel at the same time, a short-coming that many observers pinpoint as the primary reason Dallas barely missed the playoffs last season.

“The one thing we identified coming out of last year is that we needed to improve our depth and I think we’ve done that,” Nieuwendyk said last summer, “with guys that have played the game, know how to play the game and are good role players that can help us do a lot of things.”

The true test of that depth will be measured over the next several weeks.

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