|(Credit: Ross Bonander)
The Stars earned two points tonight with a late-game goal from Rhett Gardner being the deciding factor in a 3-2 victory over the visiting Milwaukee Admirals. With the win, Texas finds its way back to .500 on the season and grabs pole position, for the moment, on the final playoff spot in the Central Division. It was the Stars' fifth straight win at home.
"That was two structured teams in a physical contest," said Texas head coach Neil Graham of the playoff-feel game. "Five-on-five, stingy on both sides and a tight checking game."
In getting back to even on the season, Graham points to game 27 in the schedule, an 8-3 loss to Charlotte that sunk them to six games below .500, as a turning point. Since that point, they've been 16-10-3-4.
"Since then, you've seen a lot more consistency in our body of work. A big thing for me is that we look the same without the puck. We're tracking the same; we're defending the same, forechecking the same... I think the consistency we're seeing should yield results."
Special teams ended up being the deciding factor on both sides of the advantage for Texas. The club went scored two on the advantage and held the Ads without a power play tally.
The Stars and Ads skated to a scoreless first period. Texas dominated the early portion of the frame before Milwaukee counterpunched. Neither was able to find twine as Texas led on shots 12-6.
Milwaukee loaded up the league's seventh-best power play for a third time early in the second, and the Stars made no mistake. Curtis McKenzie tipped a Ben Gleason point shot in front of the net for the 1-0 lead. Anthony Louis had the second assist. The goal was McKenzie's 100th in a Stars uniform.
Just over a minute later, Adam Scheel got caught swimming in his blue paint, and Cole Smith jammed a bouncing puck home at the right post for the 1-1 tie.
Jordan Kawaguchi moved Texas back into the lead in the second half of the period with a sniper's shot to the top-right corner of Devin Cooley's net. Dawson Barteaux and Riley Damiani had the assists.
Three minutes later, Milwaukee punched back again. Dylan Blujus had his first of the year off a rebound from Matt Donovan's initial point shot. The intermission found Texas tied at two with four goals in the frame among 17 combined shots.
"There's been games earlier in the year especially against these guys where we go down and we get a little fragile," said Gardner of the punching and counterpunching in the game. "I think it just took a little learning. We found ways to win some games and grind some out and a couple of comebacks and you kind of realize it: we're in every game we want to be in."
Special teams were a huge factor in the final score as the third period was a risky proposition for the Texas penalty killers. After a clean penalty sheet for two period, the Stars took their turn in the sin bin, loading up the second-best power play in the league. The 23rd-ranked Texas penalty kill bent but did not break on the two chances.
In the end, Anthony Louis earned a power play for the Stars in the final three minutes of the game and the ensuing advantage salted things away for Texas. On a second effort, Rhett Gardner slammed home his sixth of the year at the left post and under the leg of Cooley.
"You just kind of want to keep it simple and get as many pucks as we could to the net," said Gardner of the goal. "[Kawaguchi] made a good play to the net and I just whacked away at it."
Texas defended the remaining 85 seconds of mostly 6-on-5 hockey to retain the win.
The Stars have an actual, legitimate break in their schedule now with their next game coming on Friday in Grand Rapids. They will take the next two days off and get back to practicing on Tuesday.
Injuries, scratches and notes
Comeau (injury, has not played)
Khudobin (injury, out for season)
Karlstrom, Lipanov, Woods, Rosburg, Tufte (scratch)
Tonight's attendance was 5,548.