Saturday, June 2, 2018

Gameday Preview: Texas Stars at Toronto Marlies, Game 1

Texas Stars
38-24-8-6, 90 pts, 0.592
#2 Pacific Division
atToronto Marlies
54-18-2-2, 112 pts, 0.737
#1 North Division
June 2nd at 3:00 PM
Ricoh Coliseum, Toronto, ON

Series tied 0-0

For the third time in nine years, the Texas Stars face off against the Eastern Conference champions for a chance at the crowning achievement of every AHL season, Calder Cup glory.

This year, Texas sits in a very similar position to the first time they went to the Calder Cup. While everyone remembers that team for the postseason run they went on, one thing that gets glossed over is that they were not the best team in the conference in the regular season. They weren't even the best team in the division. Finishing second in the West Division after a 10-4 finish through March and April, they were favored in their first round matchup against Rockford but not really considered a threat thereafter.

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
Now, Jamie Benn was an X factor that got added to the lineup for the postseason, but Texas was not the 'smart' pick going into either the second round against Chicago or the third against Hamilton. The final round against Hershey was no different, but the team had a belief, based on their success in the first three rounds. The Bears were the best team in the league that season. Texas surprised, going on the road and winning both games in Hershey to open the series. They disappointed as they came home to lose all three at home and then fall in Game 6 back in Pennsylvania.

So how much of that sounds familiar this year? A team that finished second in its division off a strong March/April, surprised a few opponents to get to the Finals and faced the team that was a regular season juggernaut.

Meanwhile, Texas Stars fans also know the Marlies story. That's the story of 2014. The Stars knew at New Years that they were going to play for the Cup, but they just didn't know who they would play. Toronto's been the best team in the East all season. They are deep and dangerous. They score prolifically. They have the best defense in the league. Their starting goaltender, Garret Sparks, won the Bastien award as best goalie in the AHL. (They also knocked out the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, who had the league MVP Phil Varone, in a 4-game sweep)

So it ain't gonna be easy. Texas needs a split in Toronto, no question. Coming back down 0-2 is far less than ideal.

The Marlies are built on the classic AHL combination for success. Pricey but successful veterans form an experienced core for flashy, young kids to work with. Those veterans are familiar for Texas fans: F Ben Smith (5-6=11 in 13 GP), former Texas Stars C Chris Mueller (2-8=10 in 13 GP) and D Vincent LoVerde (0-1=1 and plus-12 in 13 GP). Add in those young kids like Andreas Johnsson (6-9=15 in 9 GP), Trevor Moore (4-9=13 in 13 GP) and rookie Carl Grundstrom (6-4=10 in 13 GP).

Action shot from the last season these two teams met, specifically Jan 10, 2015
(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
One place where Texas could beat up on Toronto is special teams. It's slight, but Texas holds an edge over Toronto on the overall penalty kill (84.1% vs 81.0%) with near even power plays (23.4% for TOR with 22.0% for TEX). Texas's road PK has been stout at 85% with Toronto's home PK at 80%. Again, it's a slight advantage. Texas has had the fewest shorthanded opportunities per game of any team that advanced past the first round (2.93). However, Toronto isn't far behind at 3.23. It's so small as to be unmentionable, unless you score when it matters on that extra PK every three games.

Texas has a good chance to come out and surprise Toronto in Game 1 today. Neither team knows what to expect of the other. It says a lot to close with this fact. Both teams are undefeated in the postseason when scoring first. Texas is 8-0 and Toronto 9-0. First goal wins.

Stars injury report:
None.

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