Friday, June 15, 2018

Texas Stars Thoughts on the Day After

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

With the wound still fresh, Texas Stars fans got out the shaving cream today and trimmed up their playoff beards, literal and figurative ones alike.

I personally spent a decent amount of time after last night's game just staring off into space thinking about what this team accomplished this year. I kept coming back to the same phrase that's become a bit of a meme for the media corps: "You've gotta give them credit."

Every coach has their phrases they love to use. Coach Pyle overused the word "phenomenal." Things weren't great; they were phenomenal! Coach Desjardins would dig up, "That's a good team over there," with blistering frequency to describe some club they'd just blitzed 4-0. And Coach Laxdal leans on "You've gotta give them credit." Sometimes it's "our guys" with the credit, and sometimes it's "their guys."

But today, it's 'our guys.' You've gotta give them credit.

We were never quite sure during the early season if this was a team bound for the playoffs or not. Texas would win 8 out of 10 (e.g. Nov 21 - Dec 3) and then turn around and lose 8 of 10 (e.g. Dec 20 - Jan 10). They would follow up that losing bout with two dominant wins against the best team in the West at the time, the Moose, in Winnipeg (Jan 19 and 20). Something clicked right around that point, and the Stars would open a can on the league. Before the Manitoba games, Texas was 20-15-4-2. They went on a season-ending run that saw them go 18-9-4-4. In a division where not every team is on equal footing, I give a lot of credit to a resilient Texas team that battled through to get to overtime in many games where they weren't the better team for much of the contest.

Those overtime contest hardened up this club. It made them believe in themselves. They were never out of a game because they had been there before. They almost relished the opportunity when they had their collective backs against the wall late in a contest. Texas finished the season with 37 overtime games to their name between regular and postseason play.

You've gotta give credit to Curtis McKenzie, Justin Dowling and Travis Morin. The only three players remaining from that 2014 Cup team made their mark in the playoffs. They went 1-2-3 in scoring for Texas in the postseason while playing every single game.

Not really finally, but at least for this post, my goodness, you've got to give credit to Mike McKenna. There will be a future McKenna retrospective post in this space, but for the moment, you have to marvel at what he did to put this team on his back at times to get them to Game 7.

Is there stuff to work on? Sure. Wouldn't you love to be basking in the glory of a championship right now? Absolutely.

But this team surprised you. I can guarantee it did. And you've gotta give them credit.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Toronto Marlies Claim Calder Cup Glory as Texas Stars Fall 6-1 in Decisive Game 7

(Credit: Toronto Marlies)
No matter what, the Texas Stars season was coming to an end this evening. At times, it seemed like the only people in the world who believed in this team was themselves. At the start of every round, there was some reason why this club couldn't compete with their foe for that series.

"They'll struggle against Ontario," we said. Done in four. "Tucson won the Western Conference." Crushed in five. "Rockford hasn't lost in the postseason." Cleared away in six.

"Toronto had the best record in the AHL..." And even though they didn't win, Texas took a fantastic, talented team to the brink. Seven games against a club that so many had penciled in for a walk in the park to the Calder Cup.

Texas proved themselves worthy. They showed resiliency. They made their fans proud.

The final score was 6-1 for the Marlies, and the road to get there is the point of this post. But it's important to remember all of that before recounting how we got here on this particular evening.

The Stars were plagued by another slow start, being outshot 19-7 in the first period. It got no better in the second as the final shot count after 40 was 2-to-1 at 34-17. Texas never recovered from the early offensive outburst of the Marlies, and the contest was over nearly before Texas got started.

Texas had a great early chance of the stick of rookie phenom Sheldon Dries. On one of the breakaways he has become known for this season, he clanged it off the post. The Marlies paid it no mind as they poured on their offensive onslaught.

Their first goal came off a giveaway by Roope Hintz as he looked to exit the Texas zone. Miro Aaltonen picked his pocket and dished to Carl Grundstrom for the shot. Andreas Johnsson cleaned it up for his 9th goal of the postseason, and Texas was in a hole.

Toronto's offense didn't relent, pouring on 19 shots in the period to Texas's 7. Just as it appeared the Stars would escape the first with just a 1-0 deficit, Mason Marchment rifled a one-timer from the slot past Mike McKenna with 17 seconds left in the frame. Texas retreated to the locker room down 2-0.

The Stars had some solid opportunities in period two but couldn't get anything to go. Dillon Heatherington snuck down to the right wing dot and sailed one high over an empty net in the eighth minute of the period. A few minutes later, the Stars thought they had a goal as the puck sat on the line after a good shift from Fyten's crew. The play went to review but was confirmed as no goal, as called on the ice.

The Marlies outshot the Stars 15-10 in the middle stanza and led the count 34-17 in the game by that point.

Toronto went up 3-0 in the final frame with Grundstrom's eighth of the postseason. It was another giveaway, this time from rookie John Nyberg.

The Stars found the net, ending a shutout bid for Garret Sparks, with a goal that was initially not called on the ice, but was then reviewed and called a goal after the fact. Austin Fyten got the credit for the tally.

Andreas Johnsson got his second of the game to make it 4-1 with less than four minutes left in regulation. The Stars pulled McKenna immediately after the goal, and captain Ben Smith found that empty net for the 5-1 score. Then Marchment added one more for the 6-1 final.

Tonight's lines:
Morin-Dowling-McKenzie
Hintz-Dickinson-Mangene
Elie-Dries-Flynn
Fyten-L'Esperance-Markison

Heatherington-Regner
Bodnarchuk-Scarlett
Nyberg-Bayreuther

Injuries, scratches, and notes:
O'Brien, Payne, Calderone, Kelleher, Rallo, Hansson, Paliotta, Robertson, Laberge, Desrosiers, Gurianov, Caamano (scratch)

Tonight's attendance was 8,818.

AHL Gamesheet - Texas at Toronto - June 14 2018

Gameday Preview: Texas Stars at Toronto Marlies, Game 7

Texas Stars
38-24-8-6, 90 pts, 0.592
#2 Pacific Division
atToronto Marlies
40-28-4-4, 90 pts, 0.579
#1 North Division
June 14th at 6:00 PM
Ricoh Coliseum, Toronto, ON

Series tied 3-3

Playing hockey on June 14th... what else is there left to say? It's game seven of a finals series. Most had Texas bouncing out of the playoffs in round two, but here they sit on the precipice of earning their second championship in five years.

The last time the Calder Cup went to a seventh game, the series also featured a team from Texas and one from Ontario. In that 2003 battle, the Houston Aeros beat the Hamilton Bulldogs for the championship. Neither team exists anymore, if that gives you a sense of how long ago that was in the league's terms.

(Credit: Toronto Marlies)

Any number of storylines could emerge tonight.

Will Mike McKenna turn in another sterling performance to earn his first AHL championship? If so, it couldn't happen to a better guy. His rebound game in Game 6 kept Texas alive through period one and gave them the chance to breakaway in period two.

Will Texas get depth scoring like Game 6, rely on their top line like all the other games or get nothing at all? Any of those feels possible right now as the game approaches.

Will Garret Sparks have a rebound game of his own for Toronto after being chased on Tuesday? Would Sheldon Keefe consider calling on backup Calvin Pickard to start game 7? Sparks has looked shaky at times in the series, but he's generally gotten it done. It's hard to argue with the results generally even if one game was less than ideal.

Texas has a 3-0 record in Game 7s all-time including a 6-2 come-from-behind victory against this same Marlies team in the Western Conference Finals in 2014. Toronto is 3-2 all-time in Game 7s.

Thousands of words could be written about all the things that tonight's game is and will be, but in the end, the teams will decide the AHL's championship in a winner-take-all best-of-1 series tonight in Ontario to close the entirety of the North American professional hockey season.

And it doesn't get much better than that.

Stars Injury Report
None

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Brilliant McKenna, Huge Second Period Give Stars 5-2 Game 6 Win Over Marlies

(credit: Toronto Marlies)
The Texas Stars beat the Toronto Marlies 5-2 in game 6, forcing a game 7 on Thursday. After surviving a first period blitz from Toronto, Texas responded with three goals in the second period, effectively answering the beatdown they endured in game 5.

The Stars received contributions from everywhere in the lineup. Sheldon Dries scored a shorthanded goal in the third period, notching his tenth goal of the postseason. Curtis McKenzie's opening goal gave him eleven for the playoffs. Goaltender Mike McKenna turned in a monstrous effort, stopping 43 of 45 shots.

The first nine minutes of play were brisk and competitive, with quality chances going both ways. The Stars generated two good looks on the rush coming from Justin Dowling and Travis Morin. At one point, the shots on goal were tied at 4-4. Then the Marlies turned on their forecheck and forced the Stars to take a delay of game penalty. It would result the Marlies taking control of the game for the rest of the period.

Though the Stars managed to kill the penalty while only ceding one shot on goal, they gained no meaningful zone time during the ensuing shifts and struggled to solve the puck pursuit of Toronto. Neutral zone turnovers and poor breakout attempts led to quality chances against McKenna, who handled himself admirably all game, keeping the game goalless at first intermission.

The Marlies ended up outshooting the Stars 12-0 over the latter thirteen minutes of the period. The script would quickly flip.

The Stars got their second period push going by being harder on pucks. Nearly seven minutes in, they dialed up their own forecheck and forced the Marlies into a defensive zone turnover, leaving McKenzie 1-on-1 with Garret Sparks. McKenzie made Sparks overcommit on the initial move and find twine with his forehand, drawing the ire of Toronto fans who felt he had committed a penalty behind the net.

Matt Mangene nearly netted the second goal on the next shift, but he had a tough angle on the yawning net and only found the post. Morin wouldn't miss on his chance. The Stars dumped the puck in on Sparks near the fifteen minute marker to force him to make a clearing attempt. Dowling came hard on the forecheck and disrupted the clear, taking the puck to the crease. Morin was there to clean up Dowling's offering and push the game to 2-0.

The silence at the Ricoh Coliseum was palpable when Austin Fyten provided some secondary scoring and gave the Stars a three goal lead with three minutes left in the middle frame. Fyten earned it by stripping a puck in the neutral zone and taking it all the way for a short side tally.

It took less than two minutes for the Marlies to respond in the third period. Calle Rosen found the back of the net from the left circle while McKenna was being heavily screened by Carl Gundstrom. The crowd back into it, the Marlies seemed to be onto something when they drew a penalty one minute later on Reece Scarlett.

As has been a motif all series, the Stars did not benefit from any whistles and did not go on the power play once. They did, however, tilt the special teams battle in their favor on the ensuing penalty kill. After McKenna continued to be brilliant while Toronto was forcing traffic towards his crease, Dries sprung loose on the clear and left no doubt on his short side marker that has become a favorite shot of his. Restoring the three goal lead took the wind right back out of the building. The tally led to Calvin Pickard replacing Sparks in net.

With five minutes to go in the game, the Marlies pulled Pickard for the extra attacker and found success by once again getting bodies to the net. Justin Holl's shot from the point made its way through traffic to cut into the lead. Any momentum gained from the marker was quickly snuffed out by Colin Markison's empty net goal one minute later.

Game 7 will be on Thursday evening at 6:00 PM CDT.

Tonight's lines:
Morin-Dowling-McKenzie
Hintz-Dickinson-Mangene
Elie-Dries-Flynn
Fyten-L'Esperance-Markison

Heatherington-Regner
Bodnarchuk-Scarlett
Nyberg-Bayreuther

Injuries, scratches, and notes:
O'Brien, Payne, Calderone, Kelleher, Rallo, Hansson, Paliotta, Robertson, Laberge, Desrosiers, Gurianov, Caamano (scratch)

Tonight's attendance was 8,783.

AHL Gamesheet - Texas at Toronto - June 12 2018

Gameday Preview: Texas Stars at Toronto Marlies, Game 6

Texas Stars
38-24-8-6, 90 pts, 0.592
#2 Pacific Division
atToronto Marlies
40-28-4-4, 90 pts, 0.579
#1 North Division
June 12th at 6:00 PM
Ricoh Coliseum, Toronto, ON

Toronto leads 3-2
(credit: Toronto Marlies)
It has been well documented that in the previous twenty instances where there has been a 2-2 tie in the Calder Cup Final, the loser of game 5 has only gone on to win the series once. Head coach Derek Laxdal bristles at the notion that the trend would have any bearing on his team's current predicament.

"[Toronto] won the first game of the series, we won the second," he said after the loss in game 5. "They won the third, we won the [fourth]. They won the fifth, our goal is to try to win the sixth and the seventh. Plain and simple."

The Stars have to at least be confident that they have as good of a chance as anyone in taking two games north of the border. Both games 1 and 2 were won by one goal, resulting in an even split. Texas has had a way of bouncing back from tough losses all season. The beatdown they received on Saturday should make for a far more competitive game 6.

"The big thing for us is we need to work a little harder to draw some penalties, to score some goals on the power play. When the refs aren’t making calls we’re going to have to draw on some of that leadership to move forward and just play through it. We definitely have to find some [secondary scoring] in the next game for sure. We need some of our second, third line--Remi Elie, [Jason Dickinson]--some guys like that step up and score some goals."

Finding themselves in unfamiliar territory this postseason, the Stars are staring down the potential end of their magical season. "It’s a different task for us. We’re still paying until they tell us we can’t play anymore. We’re not going to change who we are and change our game plan."

For Laxdal, much of that game plan includes looking internally to the resiliency of a proven team. He and his club also draw motivation from the outside perception that they are overmatched.

"I have a lot of confidence in that group in the dressing room. Only two teams left playing hockey right now, and we’re one of them. Going into Toronto, there’s no pressure. We’re the underdogs, we’re not supposed to win, according to the media. So we’re going to try to prove some people wrong. That’s our goal. I believe in our group 100%. Our goal is to win Tuesday and try and get it to a game 7."

The puck drops at 6:00 PM CDT.

Stars Injury Report
None

Monday, June 11, 2018

Where is the Calder Cup The Rest of the Year?

(Credit: AHL)
No matter what, the Calder Cup, the AHL's top prize, will be awarded this week in Toronto. But where has it been this season in the meantime?

As Texas and Toronto came to Cedar Park tied at 1 early last week, it was possible that the Cup could have been awarded on Saturday if either team swept the games in Texas. Then the question occurred to me, "Where is the Calder Cup now?"

I turned to the AHL's PR team, who are in town for the series, to answer that one. Hannah Bevis, who manages all digital and social endeavor for the league, had a few answers.

The league doesn't have a keeper of the Cup like the NHL for the Stanley Cup. It stays in Springfield most of the year and actually does not currently have a permanent display case at the league office. The Cup resides in its padded box in storage for most of the season.

Aside from promotional appearances, the Cup doesn't come out of storage until it's possible for a team to clinch, which means it never made it to Texas last week. It will be on its way to Toronto today as it could be won tonight.

Who comes with the Cup? The league has a rotating staff of front office people who haul the Cup wherever it needs to go.

League president Dave Andrews will be on hand to potentially present the Cup Tuesday's evening to the Marlies if they win. No matter what, the Calder Cup will have a new home by Thursday night.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Marlies Offense Explodes 6-2 to Push Texas Stars to Brink in Game 5

(Credit: Texas Stars)
The Toronto Marlies finally got a chance to impose their will on the Texas Stars, playing the game that led them to the best record in the league, and besting Texas in dominating fashion 6-2.

Captain Curtis McKenzie said, “It wasn’t really what we were looking [for]. It hasn’t happened to us all year, and it stunned us a bit.”

“Our group’s resilient,” said Laxdal, looking ahead to Game 6 already. “We’ve gone through the playoffs here; we haven’t faced an elimination game yet. It’s a different task for us.”

Texas had the first few chances of the game, but Toronto scored on two of their first three shots. The Stars never truly recovered.

“It’s huge,” said Keefe of the quick start. “Especially when you’ve played three games now where offense is so hard to come by.”

Despite some pretty serious seeming transgressions both ways, there was only one penalty called total in the game tonight. Laxdal was diplomatic, “I’m not going to comment on the penalties. I’ll just leave it at that.” However, he did add that his team needs to be better at drawing penalties.

Andreas Johnsson potted his 8th of the playoffs on a breakaway to start the scoring just 92 seconds in. Brent Regner mishandled a puck at the point, sending Johnsson in alone. Dillon Heatherington couldn’t catch him, and it went to 1-0 Toronto.

“When your top player is on a breakaway early and finishes it’s a pretty good sign of what’s to come in the game,” said Keefe. “Certainly when we can skate to the neutral zone it makes everybody’s life a little bit easier.”

Dowling continued, “We started out the shift really well and then it just took a bad hop on Regner there. There’s nothing you can do. The hockey gods weren’t on our side. It’s hard to start the game like that.”

Trevor Moore scored just 47 seconds later, a puck that beat McKenna five hole. The Stars were lucky to make it out of the period down just 2-0 as they were outshot 9-2 at one point and ended the frame down 11-6 on shots. Mike McKenna had issues with rebound control.

Texas got a bit of a spark to start the second, but it was short lived. From the point, Gavin Bayreuther bombed his second of the series and third of the playoffs. With the lead cut to one, the overcapacity crowd was re-energized. Toronto took the air right out of the building with Colin Greening’s goal. Greening picked up a pass from Chris Mueller and whipped it past McKenna. The Texas defense seemed to have almost lost track of the puck as it initially struck Greening before coming to Mueller for the pass.

Defenseman Calle Rosen stepped up to end the second period strong for the Marlies. First, he absolutely deked the pants off Justin Dowling to get an open lane for the fourth goal. The fifth came as he skated in nearly untouched from his own blue line and rifled one in.

The third period would see Landon Bow jump into game action for the first time since April. McKenna would end the night with 17 saves on 22 shots.

“Mike has been outstanding for us in the playoffs,” said Laxdal. “He’s been our MVP so far. He’s given it every game, and we needed to get him a break in there. It was just to change the momentum of the game and kind of change the mindset of our group.”


Bow only saw five shots in the final frame, letting up one to Carl Grundstrom in the 11th minute. It was quickly followed by a rebound tap-in by Sheldon Dries, his 9th of the postseason.

Texas had a chance to make it 6-3 with just over four minutes left as Travis Morin scored a goal that was immediately waved off for being played with a high stick. The crowd was incensed, as was the Texas bench. The officials explained the goal to Laxdal but refused to speak to Curtis McKenzie or any other Texas player afterwards.

The Stars, down 6-2, did not opt to pull Bow for the extra attacker with the four goal deficit. With three, that might have happened, but four seemed insurmountable.

Texas heads to Toronto tomorrow for Tuesday’s Game 6 at Ricoh Coliseum.

Tonight's lines:
Morin-Dowling-McKenzie
Dickinson-Dries-Elie
Gurianov-Hintz-Flynn
Markison-Fyten-L'Esperance

Bodnarchuk-Scarlett
Heatherington-Regner
Bayreuther-Mangene

McKenna
Bow

Injuries, scratches, and notes:
O'Brien, Payne, Calderone, Kelleher, Laberge, Rallo, Hansson, Paliotta, Robertson, Nyberg, Desrosiers, Caamano (scratch)

Tonight's attendance was 6,863, a sellout. Texas solid a decent number of standing room tickets, so it’s unclear why the number wasn’t higher than the usual sellout number. Building record is from Game 5 of the Finals in 2010 at 7,054.

All reports from players indicated the ice conditions were great and certainly better than Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum.

AHL Gamesheet - Texas v. Toronto - June 9 2018