Checks on the wing
• Brenden Morrow draws on Winter Hawk lessons in taking bumps for Dallas
DALLAS Ñ He's not the biggest Dallas Star, nor the most flamboyant, nor the greatest goal scorer. And he certainly doesn't grow the thickest beard.
'This is my first try,' Brenden Morrow says sheepishly, stroking the facial hair that is a staple for many NHL players during the playoffs. 'I got a two-week head start on everyone else. They don't know that, because it was just peach fuzz for the first two weeks.
'I'm going to do my best with it, even though it's itchy. It'll be gone the week after we are done Ñ hopefully when we are partying and celebrating winning the (Stanley) Cup.'
The Stars have a chance, thanks in no small part to Morrow, the grinding left wing who spent his four seasons in junior hockey with the Portland Winter Hawks.
Many thought that the 5-11, 210-pound Morrow was the best player on the ice for the Stars as they eliminated Edmonton in the first round, even though he didn't score a goal.
'Brenden has been a great player for us all year, but he probably played his best six games in the six games against Edmonton,' Dallas coach Dave Tippett says. 'That ability to raise his level in the playoffs puts him in an elite status.'
Morrow, 24, had four assists against the Oilers, but it was his aggressive play around the net, in the corners and up the ice that made him stand out.
'Brenden is the guy everyone loves to have on his line, because he does a lot of the grunt work,' linemate Scott Young says. 'He's in front of the net, taking a beating. He's in the corners, digging pucks out. He's delivering big hits and taking hits to make a play.
'If Brenden is in front creating havoc with the goalie, there's a lot more of a chance the puck is going to go in for us.'
Young and Mike Modano, Morrow's other linemate, each scored four goals in the Edmonton series. The rest of the Stars combined for eight. It is no coincidence that Morrow's plus/minus ratio was plus-four, second-best on the team.
Doubts quickly erased
'It's easy playing with Brenden,' Modano says. 'You know what kind of player he is, and he does it every shift. He plays so hard, he gets the puck to the net, he plays well defensively and he has become one of our main penalty-killers.'
Not bad for a kid from rural Carlyle, Saskatchewan, a stalwart on the Hawks' 1998 Memorial Cup championship squad but never a star. When he was chosen by Dallas with the 25th pick in the 1999 draft, some questioned whether he had the size and skill to make it.
Even Morrow wondered.
'A little,' he says. 'I thought maybe up here I wouldn't be as effective. I play the exact same game here, the same role I played with Portland. I have gotten my share of goals with the same sort of rugged, ugly hockey I played in the juniors.'
Morrow made a splash as a rookie, scoring 14 goals, including three game-winners Ñ the biggest rookie season for the Stars since Modano scored 29 in his first season (1989-90).
Morrow scored 20, 17 and 21 the last three seasons. As he did with Portland, he plants himself in front of the opposing net and is impossible to root out, creating opportunities for his linemates. He is annually among the league's top 10 in hits. This year, he led the Stars with 134 penalty minutes.
'He's a hard-nosed guy who gives you everything you could ever ask for as a coach,' Tippett says. 'When you are looking for somebody to get the job done, you know he's going to do whatever it takes to get it done.'
Credit given for hard goals
Morrow accepts all plaudits graciously but confides that he would like to become a more prolific goal scorer, too.
'That's what you play for,' he says. 'I had a real good series against Edmonton, but a couple of times I had good chances to score. We didn't need those goals, but at the time I was disappointed they didn't go in.'
Tippett expects it to happen but says Morrow is already unusually effective in difficult situations.
'Brenden doesn't score easy goals,' Tippett says. 'He can, but the thing that separates him Ñ and the reason he will score more in the future Ñ is because he is willing to pay the price.
'There are a lot of guys who have success scoring from the fringes. Brenden sticks his nose in there and scores those goals in traffic, and with somebody on his back, and with somebody cross-checking him.'
Only two teammates are shorter than Morrow, but it hasn't made a lick of difference.
'I wasn't the biggest guy in juniors, either,' he says. 'I sort of live by the saying, 'It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the fight in the dog.' (Former Portland teammate) Marty Standish has lived by that his whole career. You learn to make it work.'
Ducks present a challenge
Dallas opened its second-round series Thursday night against Anaheim, coached by an old rival Ñ Mike Babcock, feisty coach of the Spokane Chiefs during Morrow's years in Portland.
'When we played them during the regular season this year, we always had a word after the game,' Morrow says. 'The Ducks surprised a lot of people (by sweeping Detroit) in the first round.
'At times through the season, they looked like a bit of a selfish team; but against Detroit, they had five guys backchecking and their goalie was tremendous. They are getting a lot of respect. We know it will be a tough series.'
In Morrow's first season, Dallas reached the Stanley Cup finals, losing to New Jersey the year after winning it all. In 2001, the Stars were ousted in the second round and last year didn't make the playoffs.
'Getting to the finals as a rookie was probably the worst thing that could happen,' Morrow says. 'You think it's going to happen every year. Last year was a wake-up call.'
But Morrow is optimistic about the Stars' chances to eliminate the Mighty Ducks and get back to the finals.
'This is the best (Dallas) team I have been on skill-wise, character-wise and goaltender-wise,' he says. 'A lot of my teammates have won a Cup, but I haven't, so I am one of the hungrier guys on the team. I want to make sure I have one of those when I'm done.'