LCS Hockey: Born Again
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June 19, 2019
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Dallas Doing It Again

Marty Turco
The Dallas Stars have been a blight on professional hockey for more than a decade now, notching seven division titles, eight 100-point campaigns, and one Stanley Cup over the past 10 seasons. And they've done it all playing a mind-numbingly dull brand of hockey, clutching, grabbing, and trapping their way to the top. They've become little more than the New Jersey Devils West, and I think we all know how painful that can be.

With a cast of aging stars and no talent in the pipeline, I figured this would be the year the Stars would finally crack. I picked them to miss the playoffs, freeing us from their terrible tyranny once and for all.

Well, sooner or later, I'll be right. Honest. I promise.

Dallas is currently in first place in the Pacific Division with an impressive 31-20-5 record. Mike Ribeiro has elevated his game, leading the team in scoring with 22 goals and 59 points. Niklas Hagman has already established a new career-high with 19 goals, further strengthening what should have been an anemic offense. On the back line, rookie Matt Niskanen has come out of nowhere to log huge minutes and offset the loss of Philippe Boucher, who's been out since early December recovering from shoulder surgery. And in net, Marty Turco continues to be rock solid, owning a 22-11-4 record with a 2.35 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. It's enough to make me sick.

The season started out promising enough, with the Stars stumbling out of the gate to a 7-7-3 record. I was encouraged. But Dallas owner Tom Hicks wasn't, so he dismissed general manager Doug Armstrong, replacing him with Brett Hull and Les Jackson. Teams seldom change GMs in midseason, but if the results in Dallas are any indication, it could become a trend.

Since giving Armstrong the boot on November 13, the Stars have gone 24-13-2, climbing to the top of the Pacific. Coincidence?

"What we were saying as players and the general feeling was that we assume the responsibility and the onus of what transpired, the drastic change," said Turco.  "It was an unfortunate incident. Nothing anybody wants to see, especially in the course of the season. But whether there was a correlation between the two, we don't know. But we know the focus and intensity was changed directly after that incident." 

February is the time of year when most teams lose their focus, but the Stars have yet to lose any of their momentum from the management change, going 6-2-0 over their last eight games. Turco has been particularly strong of late, stopping 92 of 97 shots in consecutive road wins over Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary.

"Our team has always been consistent with workouts, which is imperative for our travel schedule, being out west," said the netminder.  "We know at the beginning of the year it's going to be a grind no matter what month it's going to be for us. So we continuously put our nose to the grindstone, and you know, work through it."

For Turco, working through it means facing more scoring chances than in the past. While it seems as though NHL officiating is regressing by the day, it's still better than the pre-lockout days when the Dallas defense held more than my liver. As a result, Turco is facing 26.1 shots per game, up from his career average of 24.6 shots.

"At times the game has slowed down and become easier and more black and white," said Turco.  "But other times you have more high-quality chances against. And with the skill level of guys coming to the net untouched, certainly it is a lot more back door plays that gives guys a chance to hold on to it and find open guys in front of the net for quick extra shots. You certainly have to be on your toes or ready for anything."

Having a young backup has helped keep Turco on his toes. Second-year man Mike Smith has solidified the team's goaltending, giving the Stars a reliable one-two punch in net. Smith has played so well, there were rumors Turco could get shipped out of town, but the 32-year-old veteran doesn't mind mentoring the man many think will eventually take his job.

"First of all, it's just nice to work with a kid that works hard [and] does have a bright future," said Turco.  "He's got a great intellect for the game. He just wants to get better. It's contagious. He wants to learn.     

"We're great friends. . . . It's nice coming to the rink every day where we talk hockey, we can talk about anything that's going on in our lives. But when you can have that open and honest relationship and still at the same time push each other, you can't really, in my mind, create a better environment for success.  It's been something that I've certainly enjoyed and look forward to for many years watching him continue to grow and get a better role in this league and see what he can really do."

Despite sharing more of the load with Smith, Turco still has 22 wins, putting him on pace to earn his fifth consecutive 30-win season. Only Martin Brodeur, with 11, has a longer active streak. Turco prides himself on his consistency, and that's a trait he learned playing four years of college hockey at the University of Michigan.

"I was a late bloomer to say the least," admitted Turco. "And staying in college four years wasn't really an option, because it was my only option when I got there. I'm glad it all went down like that, actually. 

"I've seen the broad spectrum of everybody from Mike Modano being 18 and going No. 1 overall coming into the league and playing for a long time. And for me, you know, I couldn't have done that. I couldn't even play when I was 21, 22. I needed the experience of the comforting surroundings of college, the background of education. Just to have that nothing-for-granted type attitude which I still carry with me today. I still show up every day on the ice still. The path wasn't quite laid out for me, but I found my way."

Turco is trying to help other kids find their way through literacy. Turco heads up the Stick with Reading program, an initiative of the Dallas Stars Foundation that's designed to help kids from kindergarten to eighth grade discover the joys of reading. The program tracks the number of minutes the kids spend reading and rewards them for consistent progress. The children can read books, magazines, or newspapers, but they're all beaten severely if they're caught reading LCS.

"I inherited the program from Brian Skrudland who created it," said Turco, who's been leading the show for the past six years.  "Blake Sloan, a college teammate of mine, took it over briefly from him. And ever since I came around, I was helping him out, and he was kind, and I joined on board and really enjoyed it. 

"Both my wife and I went to school to be educators. Now we have children of our own, and we understand the importance of education. Not just at a secondary or university level, but from the beginning in the grass roots level of it all. We started our household early, and we just want to give everybody that opportunity to do so. And we have almost 40,000 kids in this program. If I can only encourage one kid a year to read, that would even make me happy. But we've had an opportunity to do plenty more than that. We have dynamite pep rallies and incentive-laden programs that just encourage reading. 

"It's been something that touches my heart and certainly my wife's. It's had a positive and great reinforcement feedback from the community, and we'll continue to do it as long as we can."

Nothing would make Turco happier than letting the kids read about another Stanley Cup championship in Dallas. The Stars haven't won a playoff series since 2003, but they came real close to advancing last season, when Turco went save for save with Roberto Luongo over a memorable seven-game duel. Turco finished the series with a 1.30 GAA and a .952 save percentage, erasing any lingering doubts about his ability to perform under pressure. But he's not in it for individual accolades.

"I play to win. Losing, however it happens, is never -- it's never what you're looking forward to for the summer. For me, it's still three first-round losses in a row. And really, I knew I could always do it, so that wasn't an issue, so it made for a rather long summer." 

Turco and the Stars can get an ounce of revenge tonight when they host Luongo and the Canucks at American Airlines Center. Vancouver is currently ninth in the West, nine points behind Dallas.

"I can't control what happens for the most part at the other end," said Turco of his rivalry with Luongo.  "But it's fun. There are special times, you know. Saw Kipper the other night at the other end, [tonight] we'll see Louie. Playing against those guys, it's a challenge. 

"We do hope to bring out the best in each other. That just makes for a better game. But more than anything, you want to come away victorious, just to keep a little small feather in the cap. We'll have plenty of games against each other, and none is more important than the next."

At the beginning of the season, no one was picking Dallas to compete for the Pacific crown. It was supposed to be a two-team race between Anaheim and San Jose. But if the Stars keep stringing together victories, they could change all that. And once they get to the postseason, they feel they're prepared to make some noise.

"Just based on experience alone we're better equipped as a team," said Turco. "The hunger factor and all that with losing, the way the parity is in the league, it's never going to be easy regardless of who you are, or even just getting in, for that fact, is hard enough. 

"So we had some injuries like we did last year. We kind of feel like our offense is a little more capable this year. Our power play has been bigger and better. But it all comes down to the playoffs. So everything's clicking, and we're just going to worry about getting ourselves in and see what happens then." 

But don't worry. No matter what happens, I'm sure it'll be boring.

LCS Hockey: Born Again
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