40-25-8-3, 91 pts, 0.599
#3 Pacific Division
|v.||San Diego Gulls|
39-23-4-2, 84 pts, 0.618
#2 Pacific Division
Series tied 0-0
April 21st at 7:30 PM
Cedar Park Center, Cedar Park, TX
Welcome to the playoffs! For the sixth time in seven seasons, the Texas Stars have made it to the postseason. That's not exceedingly common, so the feat is notable on its own. Now the Stars look to make some noise against an opponent that could be read either way depending on the lens you choose.
For at least the past few months, it seemed nearly certain that Texas would play San Diego in the first round. It was just a question of who would own home ice advantage. These two teams last matched up on February 17th and San Diego looked to be the third seed. After losing that game, the Gulls were just three games above 0.500, and the Stars had every reason to be confident about their pending matchup. They were 5-1 against the Gulls on the season and had just finished the series with a 6-3 spanking.
Then the Gulls got hot.
Since the two teams last played, the Gulls are 16-3-3-1, earning them over three-quarters of the available points. Over the same period, Texas is 9-7-5-0. If the playoffs are all about getting hot and staying hot, this could be a problem for the Stars. Coach Laxdal is certainly aware of the dichotomy, "You can look at it two ways. They've got a great roster and are having a great second half. In the playoffs, everyone has that clean slate."
|(Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)|
One of the simplest moves of the match will be the move that Texas doesn't make. Captain Travis Morin noted that the Gulls often tried to goad the Stars into post-whistle antics, "We have to stay out of the box. During the regular season, it played out that way. They tried to push us around after whistles. If they want to do that again, we have to keep the same mentality."
The concept of special teams is going to be a big one; Morin called out the skill on the San Diego power play as a huge reason to stay out of the box (more on that below). Coach Laxdal harkened back to the series last year against Rockford that saw the Stars go 1-for-10 on the man advantage (and allow 3 PPGs on 13 opps for a 77% PK).
"That's one thing we didn't capitalize on last year against Rockford," Laxdal recalled. "When you're in a five-game series, you have to score a power play goal a game if you want to have a chance. Their power play is solid and [their goalies] are solid. We have to utilize our speed. We know we're not a big physical hockey club."
Ritchie v. Ritchie
Thanks to assignments from their respective NHL teams earlier this week, Nick and Brett Ritchie will face off against each other in this series. The brothers played against each other in a few AHL games this season but were rarely on the ice at the same time. Their lines were not matched, and neither plays on the penalty kill.
The return of Brett Ritchie is a big impact for the Stars. The elder Ritchie potted 14-14=28 in an injury- and call-up-shortened season of 35 games. He's a steady contributor on a power play that has been sputtering over the past few weeks. Coach Laxdal anticipates injecting Ritchie into the top six and potentially adding Matej Stransky as their third.
San Diego Impact Players
Chris Mueller - How did we get this far into the preview without mentioning Chris Mueller? Texas knows exactly what Mueller brings. He's dangerous at even strength and even more lethal on the PP. He has 20 goals this season with 8 of them coming on the PP.
Nick Ritchie - Ritchie has spent a ton of time with Anaheim this year (33 games) but in the AHL, he is nearly a point per game player. He's also a dangerous PP weapon with half of his 16 goals coming with the man advantage.
Brandon Montour - All-Rookie Team selection Brandon Montour was not noted for his defensive prowess in our various award ballot reveals, but he can score points, for sure. He's got just as many points as Mueller (57).
Matt Hackett and Anton Khudobin - Anaheim has an embarrassment of goaltenders, and these two vets have been stalwart down the stretch for the Gulls. Big impacts are possible from either one.
Texas Impact Players
Travis Morin - Plain and simple, the Stars need Travis Morin to be Travis Morin. He is the Stars' answer to Chris Mueller (but with a better playoffs points pace).
Brendan Ranford - Leading scorer in the series with an eye-popping 11 points in six games. Now a vet of AHL playoff runs thanks to that Calder Cup run. Will need to act as a veteran for some of the younger kids making their first foray.
Jason Dickinson - Seven points in six games against the Gulls. With the center lineup set in the top two, Dickinson could be a very important piece of the puzzle. If he can light things up on the third line, that puts major pressure on the Gulls' depth.
Maxime Lagace - The elephant in the room is Lagace's play over the last month or so. Since February 17th, he's gone 4-6-3, including 3 pulls. Putting Jack Campbell in for the last game was a two-pronged strategy: give Lagace rest and maybe plant that seed of doubt about his starter role. Tonight will tell us if it worked.
Stars injury/call up report:
Faksa, Johns (call up)
Shore, Ully, Troock (injury, out for season)
Gulls Web Resources:
Twitter: @619sports (PBP)