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.

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