|(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)|
Neil Graham is determined. The Stars head coach was direct and forthright this week following two losses to Manitoba. The team needs to gets wins in winnable games and start stringing together Ws. Full stop.
"We feel like we're close, but we haven't got the final result," said Graham when reached by phone Wednesday afternoon. "Some of the toughest losses are where you can see the true colors of people. You can learn some some tough lessons in those scenarios, but they are not as nearly as much fun as winning. I'd much rather develop through winning. And that's where that's where we need to regain our focus."
Focus was a good watchword for the week, coming off a pair of games with heartbreaking results. On Friday, Texas was the better team through all 60 but fell by a lopsided score. On Saturday, the team had a breakthrough performance from Anthony Louis scuttled by a literal last-second goal.
Graham noted that 23 goals against Texas have come in the first two or final two minutes of a period. Coming back to something we discussed earlier in the season, it's the things going on between the ears that are causing those missteps. The systems, which were adjusted during the COVID pause, have been executed well and went swimmingly in the Manitoba games. The "game management" aspects are where the gaps are currently coming up.
Graham gave an example: "On the penalty kill, when we bring it back to our own end, we try and make an extra pass in our own zone on the penalty kill. That is a game management situation. We have to be mature and be smarter. We were up 3-2, and that was [Manitoba's] first scoring chance of the period at the ten minute mark of the third, up a goal. That's a correctable thing. We have to mature in that area and be smarter the next time."
There was a notable uptick in pace and concentration at practice this week after the slap to the face that was the final second goal against Manitoba.
"The message wasn't sinking in before. I think we all took a long and hard look in the mirror on that particular play. I've seen even a better mental toughness throughout practice this week. Our guys are kind of pissed off, but for the right reasons, if you'll pardon my French."
Texas is about to embark on a six-game, two-week trip. The team has a goal for points on the trip but wouldn't disclose it publicly. Realistically, perhaps in a bit of a cliche, they're focused on the first game against Charlotte on Saturday. It sounds like we should expect Adam Scheel and Matt Jurusik to both get starts on the trip until Anton Khudobin returns.
It might not feel like it, but Texas is barely one-third of the way through the season, having played 25 of a 72 game schedule. With games-in-hand on every single team in the division and the weaknesss of the bottom half of the Central, it's completely within reach. As noted in a previous post, Texas doesn't need a wild record to make it to the fifth-place spot. Just a mark of 23-16-1 will do it right now. The club is currently at 8-13-3-1.
This coming trip contains some extended time off in the Midwest. Texas finds itself with three open days between Rockford on the 22nd and Chicago on the 26th. I worked to ask if the team had any plans for something fun or some team bonding on those off days. There was no daylight. The answer came back swiftly and firmly: "We have a game to play. I know I'm being a little surly here, but it's the truth. We got to play our games. Play the games, and the fun takes care of itself. You win. You earn the fun."
Texas opens its road trip with a pair of games in Charlotte Friday and Saturday at 5 PM CT and noon CT, respectively.