Friday, May 18, 2018

Greasy Goals Help Texas Stars Top Rockford IceHogs 4-2 in Game 1

(credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
The Texas Stars knocked off the Rockford IceHogs 4-2 on Friday night, winning game one of the Western Conference Finals and saddling Rockford with their first loss of the postseason. Roope Hintz and Remi Elie both ended the game with two points each. Sheldon Dries had one goal, and Jason Dickinson played a strong two-way game.

“I thought that whole line [played well] with Dries and Dickinson, said Stars coach Derek Laxdal. I really like that line. They were a good line for us in the Tucson series. For us moving forward, we just gotta keep ramping it up a little bit and be harder a little bit. And we have to grow as the series goes and guys like Remi, Roope and Deni are going to grow and get better.”

To Dickinson, getting to the net and getting dirty goals was the recipe for success for the Stars.

“That’s playoff hockey,” he said. “There’s not going to be too many pretty goals at this point in time. Everybody’s playing tight, everybody’s marking their guy well. You’re going to have to fight for the bounces. That’s what it’s going to take -- going to the net and maybe getting a couple of greasy ones or getting one to hit off your leg and go in.”

The Stars crashed the net hard less than five minutes into the game and were rewarded with the opening goal. Dillon Heatherington’s shot from the point somehow stayed out while Delia was heavily screened, but Curtis McKenzie cleaned up the the rebound with some yeoman’s work to make it 1-0.

Prior to Friday evening, the Stars were 6-0 in the playoffs when scoring first. “If you can score first, it’s going to gain energy for your team. Give our guys a lot of credit to keep pounding.”

Over the next several minutes, the IceHogs put on a quick clinic of postseason special teams play. A power play for the Stars at six minutes into the game went nowhere with the IceHogs controlling play for the duration of the penalty.

The IceHogs were then the recipients of one full minute of 5-on-3 time when Curtis McKenzie committed a tripping penalty while he was on the kill. Reece Scarlett had a sliding block to deny a shot on a yawning net and keep the Stars up by one momentarily.

However, the blistering IceHogs power play wouldn’t be denied as Carl Dahlstrom was left unchecked at the right circle for a one timer that trickled in under McKenna. Both teams finished the game 1-for-4 on the power play.

Roope Hintz got it back a couple of shifts later when he was sprung on a breakaway by a perfect neutral zone pass from Denis Gurianov. “If your linemmates know where and when you’re going it helps a lot,” said Hintz. “It’s good that [Gurianov and I] know how to play together.”

“Those two players have great speed,” noted Laxdal. “To make that play tape to tape at full speed shows NHL quality.”

McKenna’s marvelous glove save at point blank on Luke Johnson with five minutes left in the period kept the Stars in the lead through the end of the frame. He put together another stellar outing with 31 saves on 33 shots.

It wasn’t long into the middle frame before the IceHogs tied again, when DiDomenico picked up his goal at the four and half minute marker. A blocked shot bounced in Rockford’s favor, and DiDomenico took advantage of the open net.

“They’re a great second period team. We got caught in a couple of long changes and didn’t have great puck management. It started in the first period as we turned some pucks over and fueled their offense.”

Texas bent but didn’t break and was rewarded. Elie’s power play goal pushed the Stars back ahead near the eleven minute marker when he shoveled the puck in through a pile of humanity near Delia’s crease. “Remi looked engaged tonight,” said Laxdal. The Stars held the lead but were outshot 28-16 heading into second intermission.

The IceHogs activated their three man forecheck in the third period but didn’t record a shot through the first nine minutes. Hintz talked about how Rockford’s aggressiveness in the final frame was advantageous for the Stars. “It’s good for us if we get the puck [in that situation] because it’s 3-on-2 for us the other way,” he said. “We just gotta come down low and help our D-men.”

Dries’s goal near the thirteen minute marker gave the Stars a two-goal lead that they would not relinquish. Jason Dickinson screened on the play, and Dries made the most of Elie’s clean zone entry pass.

“Tonight, we did what we do best,” said Laxdal. “We grind and we’re resilient. We aren’t pretty, but we get it done. Game one in the books. Now our job is to get ready. They have 4 lines that come at you hard and they have a mobile backend.”

The Stars take on the IceHogs for Game 2 on Sunday at 5 PM Central.

Tonight's lines:



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

Tonight's attendance was 6,150.

AHL Gamesheet - Texas v. Rockford - May 18 2018

Gameday Preview: Texas Stars v. Rockford IceHogs, Game 1

(credit: Andy Nietuspki/Texas Stars)
So begins the Western Conference finals between the Texas Stars and the Rockford IceHogs. With home ice advantage in this 2-3-2 format, the Stars know they almost have to make a statement in game one. That's easier said than done.

The Rockford special teams have been well documented by Texas coaching staff and players. The Stars simply cannot afford to take needless penalties in the first game with the IceHogs' power play unit humming at 38%, good for 15 goals in the playoffs. Mike McKenna must maintain his strong play and be the best penalty killer when things break down.

Coach Derek Laxdal also anticipates a heavy forecheck, much like the Tucson Roadrunners, and a grinding pursuit of the puck from the IceHogs. Expect to see McKenna have to come out of the crease quite a bit to play the puck and try to slow down the quick forwards of Rockford. He spoke about this on Tuesday's Media Day.

"It depends on how they’re dumping the puck. Some teams are better than others with it. Some teams will go a period where you handle it a lot and then they realize they should put it in the corner. I’m sure we’ll find out what to expect in that first game. We’ll have a plan of attack for it when it comes."

The Stars also won't be looking for only the top players to carry the scoring load in game one. As Brian Flynn noted on Media Day, depth scoring will tilt the balance of winning or losing. "We’re going to need everyone," he said. "It’s not a line or a guy. We’ve been getting scoring throughout the lineup. Our fourth line kind of won us that last game [against Tucson]. That’s what we’re going to need to win."

For the IceHogs, center Chris DiDomenico currently outpaces all postseason players in scoring with eleven points. With home ice on the front end of the series, it will be intriguing to see which line Laxdal deploys against DiDomenico's top line. With rookie goaltender Collin Delia playing as good as any goaltender left in the playoffs (.948 SP), every decision and strategic move will have an indelible impact with the stakes so high.

Laxdal doesn't expect to have to go to anyone who is currently out of the lineup and plans to stick with the group he iced against Tucson. "If something happens and we feel we need to make a change, if we feel we need something, then we will," he said. "If we have an injury or a sickness. But right now we’ll go with the group that has got us this far."

The puck drops at 7:00 PM CDT.

Stars injury report:
Fyten (injured)


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Texas Stars Eager to Face Red Hot Rockford IceHogs

The mood of the Texas Stars on the ice during Tuesday's morning skate could accurately be described as business casual. As they look ahead to Friday's game one against the Rockford IceHogs at home, the team is having fun and itching to get back to competing on the ice with such a long layoff between rounds two and three. Coach Derek Laxdal, Brian Flynn, and Mike McKenna all spoke to the media on Tuesday after practice to discuss the upcoming series.

Rockford forward Chris DiDomenico leads postseason scoring with 11 points.
(credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
Here are some interesting takeaways.

McKenna's Influence Beyond the Crease

Inarguably, the Stars' spectacular postseason run so far has been anchored by McKenna's stellar play in net (.952 SP). "When we’re not playing that well Mike has bailed us out," said Flynn. "Having a hot goalie at this time of year is just as important [as playing your best hockey]."

Not to be overlooked is McKenna's demeanor and composing effect on his teammates. These traits have gone a long way in helping the Stars have success, according to Laxdal. "Mike brings a calmness to our group. If you watch the TV timeouts during the periods, he comes back to the bench and is just so relaxed. I think our team has taken on his personality. We don’t get flustered; we don’t get rattled if we’re down a goal, we just continue to play."

McKenna, for his part, is only doing what comes naturally to him. "I’m just trying to be myself and have fun," he says. "Being too uptight in this stuff is going to hold you back. It really is the best time of the year. You can have so much fun doing this and you can gain so much in your career and experience with it. Just trying to keep the guys on the same wavelength in having a good time out there, and making sure that we’re dilligent so that we can have a good time."

Respect for Rockford

In the IceHogs, the Stars will face their stiffest postseason challenge yet. Though they did just enough to punch a playoff ticket, Rockford was one of the hottest teams at the end of the regular season with a 7-3-0-0 record in their final ten games. They rode that momentum to a perfect 7-0 record in the first two rounds of the postseason, dispatching the higher seeded Chicago Wolves and Manitoba Moose behind hot goaltending and unsustainably great special teams.

Laxdal knows his team will have their hands full. "[The IceHogs] play fast, they pressure, they’re a lot like Tucson. So I think it’s going to be an outstanding series. I’m guessing it’s going to go six or seven games. Rockford hasn’t been defeated in the playoffs yet, and we’re looking forward to the first game. I think they got six players down from Chicago so they have a lot of NHL talent on the team. It’s going to be a great challenge for our group."

Rookie goaltender Collin Delia is as good as anyone right now with a sparkling .948 SP in the playoffs. "It’s going to be a goaltending battle. And hopefully Mike’s experience will put him over the top of the young kid."

(credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
Rockford's postseason special teams numbers are staggering. Most notably, they have 15 power play goals in the first two rounds. "Their numbers are outstanding. I think they’re 38% on the power play. Glendening and Franson -- I think they’ve got five or six goals on the power play from the back end. We have to stay out of the box and we have to play a tight game."

For good measure, Rockford's penalty kill unit is clicking at 92.9% in the playoffs, good for second in the league. Everything is working for them right now.

Leaning on Resiliency

One topic that has come up more often than not during media scrums this season has been the amount of overtime games the Stars have played. The tally has run up to 33, including postseason games. The Stars believe their comfort level with extended play and depth gives them an edge.

We’re not the most talented team in the league, we’re not the fastest team in the league, but we find a way. [We have] depth and resiliency. At any given time guys can score on our team. It’s a thing we’ve done all year -- we’ve been resilient. You never know who’s going to step up at any given time or whose gonna make that big play. Our bottom six forwards have been outstanding all year, and [our veterans] seem to rise when they’re most counted on."

"We feel pretty comfortable in [overtime] and I think our record shows that," said Flynn. "Our fourth line has scored two of those [game winners] for us. If those guys get out there they can make plays too. All the overtimes that played out through the season will help out."

The Comforts of Home

The Stars are looking forward to packing out the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park during the first two games. "Our fans have been phenomenal the whole [season]," said McKenna. "It’s just been getting better and better. All season long you look how full our building’s been and how loud its been. This H-E-B Center is a fun place to play, man. And it’s only going to get better."

For all that the Stars have put in to get home ice the lower seeded IceHogs, Flynn knows that it can be taken from them rather quickly. "We start at home so we obviously wanna come out and get that first win and not give up our home ice advantage," he said. "That first home game is really important to get. If you lose that one then maybe some guys start gripping a little bit because you know you need to get that next one. We just gotta come out and have a good start and see if we can carry it through."

Holding onto home ice advantage, for McKenna, means putting in the preparation. "I think it’s just really doing everything you can to do your homework on your opponent coming in and trying not to leave any stone unturned," he said. "I don’t think you can ever be too prepared for a specific opponent. We’ll do our homework on Rockford."

The series schedule against the IceHogs can be found here.

Key Value for Hockey and Living

When asked about his belief in his team's destiny, McKenna was quick with an answer that merits deep reflection. "I believe in working hard and hoping you get what you deserve." That's the best that any of us can do.

The series opens with Friday's game in Cedar Park.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Texas Stars Will Face Rockford in Conference Finals; Here's the Schedule

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
Here's your schedule for the Western Conference Finals featuring the Texas Stars and the Rockford IceHogs. The Stars have home ice against Rockford, so Game 1 comes at home next Friday.

Western Conference Finals (best-of-seven):

Game 1 – Fri., May 18 – Rockford at Texas, 7 p.m. CT
Game 2 – Sun., May 20 – Rockford at Texas, 5 p.m. CT
Game 3 – Tue., May 22 – Texas at Rockford, 7 p.m. CT
Game 4 – Thu., May 24 – Texas at Rockford, 7 p.m. CT
*Game 5 – Fri., May 25 – Texas at Rockford, 7 p.m. CT
*Game 6 – Mon., May 28 – Rockford at Texas, 7 p.m. CT
*Game 7 – Tue., May 29 – Rockford at Texas, 7 p.m. CT
*if necessary

Friday, May 11, 2018

Texas Stars Punch Ticket to Conference Finals with OT Win

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
Rookies and veterans. Skaters and goalies. Everyone contributed tonight as the Texas Stars dusted off their second round opponent in overtime to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the third time in team history.

Veteran Mike McKenna stopped 37 of 39 shots across three periods and change. The fourth line center Joel L'Esperance had the overtime winner and a dandy assist in the first period.

"It was a hard fought series," noted Coach Laxdal. "It was a lot closer than 4-1."

Mike McKenna added, "You look at the quality of the prospects and the veteran players who have won championship and been to finals. It's been a great fit and a lot of fun. We're only halfway there."

The fourth line was the motor of the team tonight, putting Texas on the board and scoring the winner.

"It's not just to see them succeed on a personal level. It's knowing that we've had all four lines contributing. We carried the play through all four lines, and they're every bit as important as one and two."

L'Esperance got the scoring started with an NHL-level drive to the net, bursting around Ryan MacInnis to earn a shot. Colin Markison cleaned up the rebound into a yawning net. It was a strong start to the first period where Texas truly controlled the pace of the game throughout.

The power play got Texas in trouble later on in the frame. The Stars had a chance at a 5-on-4 power play but Sheldon Dries took a retaliatory penalty and Texas saw things go to 4-on-4. With Matt Mangene taking a tripping minor, the Stars were at the always awkward 4-on-3 disadvantage. Lawson Crouse was unmarked at the net and roofed one backhand over McKenna for the tie score.

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
Tucson came out strong in the second period, outshooting Texas 7-1 in the early going. Late in the frame, the Stars got a power play of their own and cashed in. Travis Morin lofted one over Adin Hill from the right wing point to go up 2-1. Texas got another power play chance thirty seconds later and essentially had the chance for the kill shot. The Roadrunners broke in 3-on-2 shorthanded, and Ryan MacInnis redeemed himself with a shorty to tie the game at two.

The teams went to the locker room tied at forty. After a scoreless third, overtime loomed once again.

The start of OT was fast and furious. The two clubs played the first 6:39 of the frame without a whistle. Texas got in trouble as Dillon Heatherington and Brent Regner got hemmed into the zone for a lengthy portion of those six plus minutes. The Stars made it out alive, and the fourth line stepped up.

L'Esperance picks up the story, "Laberge and Markison were doing a good job on the forecheck and we got some good zone time. Bayreuther had a nice shot from the point, nice and low for a rebound. It popped right to me and I swiped it in."

Texas won four straight in the series after losing Game 1. The Stars have home ice advantage against Rockford and will start at home next Friday.

Tonight's lines:



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

Tonight's attendance was 6,117.

AHL Gamesheet - Texas v. Tucson - May 11 2018

Gameday Preview: Texas Stars v. Tucson Roadrunners, Game 5

           Texas Stars                        Tucson Roadrunners
    38-24-8-6, 90 pts, .592      v.      42-20-5-1, 90 pts, .662
  #2 Pacific Division                       #1 Pacific Division

May 11th at 7:00 PM
H-E-B Center at Cedar Park, Cedar Park, TX

Stars lead 3-1

Being completely honest, at the start of the series if you had told most there was a chance for the series to be over after five games, not many would have picked the Stars to be the advancing team. However, thanks to incredible goaltending from Mike McKenna and offense that is clicking just right, Texas has that chance tonight.

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
You want your best players to show up in big situations, and the Stars got that on Wednesday. Mike McKenna pitched his second shutout of the post season. The Stars had, as a team, two shutouts in the entire regular season. Now McKenna has two (and a 44 save relief effort) in eight playoff games. Further, the Stars power play activated with Curtis McKenzie scoring his 2nd of the postseason. Both of McKenzie's goals this playoffs have been game winners.

And in case you hadn't noticed, Brian Flynn is pacing the entire league right now with ten points in eight games (6 goals, 4 assists).

Texas has tightened up its penalty kill in the postseason as well. With 3 goals allowed on 23 chances, they are the second best team on the PK among those still left standing. Only Rockford bests them (20/22).

It goes without saying that it's desperation time for the Roadrunners. Some of their best players have been silenced. Dylan Strome, who had eight points against San Jose, doesn't have a point in the series and is minus-7. The fact that he still leads the scoring table for the Roadrunners says a lot about where they are in terms of team scoring. They're averaging fewer than two goals per game after averaging four per game in round one.

The Stars have three bites at this apple. Tucson has to play flawless hockey from here on out. Texas would love to avoid the trip to Tucson and close things out tonight, winning their first division championship since they went all the way in 2014.

Stars injury/call up report:
Fyten (questionable)

Roadrunners Web Resources
Twitter: @RoadrunnersAHL
Coverage: @CallahanOnAir (Tucson PBP)

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

McKenna Notches Third Playoff Shutout in 2-0 Stars Win Over Roadrunners

(credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
The Texas Stars won a tight checking, low scoring affair 2-0 over the Tucson Roadrunners on Wednesday night, giving them a commanding 3-1 series lead over their Pacific division rivals. They head into Friday’s home game with a chance to advance to the third round of the postseason.

“It was your typical playoff game,” said head coach Derek Laxdal. “It was real tight out there. They had a push at the end with the power play, but I thought our guys managed it well. For us it’s good to get that second win at home. Now we gotta focus on Friday.”

Goaltender Mike McKenna returned to form in an impressive 27 save shutout, his third of the postseason if you include his relief work in game three against Ontario. Brian Flynn’s two assists pushed him to ten postseason points, the first player to reach that marker in these playoffs. “You get some breaks, you make a good play and the guy scores,” said Flynn about his personal postseason success.

Andrew Bodnarchuk tallied his first point of the postseason. The ten year veteran blue liner pinched down on the rush with 4:35 left in the second period to clean up Denis Gurianov’s rebounded shot attempt, giving the Stars a bit of breathing room with a two goal lead.

Bodnarchuk described the play. “It’s always nice to chip in on the offensive side of things. I was open weak side off the break and Flynn made a great pass. I had a lot of room to skate. [Gurianov] put an unselfish shot off the pads and the rebound kind of skipped right out just as it got past their defenseman, and I was able to get a stick on it and get it through [Adin] Hill.”

Roadrunner winger Michael Bunting, who had both goals in Tucson's game one victory, put a scare in the Stars in the early going when he took a great pass up the middle and was left all alone on the rush less than two minutes into the game. McKenna stoned him on the play and was great in the first period when the Roadrunners were creating chaos with their forecheck.

“We really gotta tip our hat to McKenna right now,” said Bodnarchuk. “He’s standing on his head for us and today was no different. They had some grade A looks and he’s been really solid when we’ve had breakdowns.”

For Laxdal, the script was flipped from Monday’s game. He said that Tucson made their push in the first period. “I thought their push was in the first tonight and I thought we settled in. Mike was a brick wall in net.” The Stars ended up outshooting the Roadrunners 10-5 in the first period.

They also managed to dust off their power play tonight with a goal from Curtis McKenzie. Flynn and Justing Dowling set the Stars captain for a one timer from the slot twelve minutes into the middle frame to open the scoring. Up to that point, the Stars were a perfect 4-0 in the playoffs when scoring first. After misfiring on the same play during Monday’s game, Flynn was happy to get another crack at it.

“Today I hit [the pass]. It’s kind of a quick 3-on-1 at the net. If they want to run their guys out high and pressure us that much we just gotta make one quick good pass and make a play at the net.”

The Roadrunners pressured in the third period, much like in game three, but were not nearly as successful. Although they did hit a post on the first of two power plays in the frame, Tucson never threatened much as the Stars buckled down to avoid a third overtime game in the series. “It’s part of the progression of the playoffs,” said Laxdal. “You learn to play in certain situations. I thought our guys handled it better in the third period.”

Touting the best road power play in the AHL, the Roadrunners have yet to crack the Stars in Cedar Park on the man advantage. Wednesday was no different. Bodnarchuk talked about how his team has been successful on the penalty kill. “We’re just sticking to our system and realizing [Tucson’s] strengths. They are one of the better offensive teams we’ve seen and we know that at any moment they can turn it on. So we gotta try and limit them from getting those chances but at the same time stick to our game plan when we do get on the kill.”

With a chance to end the series on Friday, coach Laxdal’s message is simple. “For us, you have to win one more to get through. We’re going to focus on Friday’s game and we’re not going to change the way we play and change who we are. We’re going to continue the way we’re going.”

The puck drops at 7:00 PM CDT.

Tonight's lines:



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

Tonight's attendance was 5,192.

AHL Gamesheet - Texas v. Tucson - May 9 2018