|(Photo Credit: Milwaukee Admirals)
Milwaukee, WI - The Texas Stars, powered by two Jordan Kawaguchi goals and 30 saves from rookie-netminder Matt Murray - including 21 in the decisive third period - led wire-to-wire and beat the division-rival Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators affiliate) 4-1 Wednesday night in UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena in downtown Milwaukee.
Texas came into Wednesday night's game trailing the Iowa Wild by essentially a game-and-a-half for the fifth and final playoff spot in the Central Division with four games remaining, including two in Des Moines on Friday and Saturday. Iowa, who beat Grand Rapids 5-2 at home on Tuesday, was off.
The Admirals came into the game having already clinched their own spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs, but needing points to secure their spot in third, so this was no night off for Milwaukee.
The game started slowly for both teams. Neither team was able to amount any serious threat over the opening several minutes of the first period. Shots were 3-0 Texas eight minutes into the opening frame when Texas' Rhett Gardner and Kole Sherwood of the Admirals got tied up and got called for matching roughing penalties, putting the teams on a 4-on-4 matchup for two minutes.
After two big stops from Murray in the defensive end, Texas returned fire at the other end of the ice before Ryan Shea collected his own long rebound, fired again on Milwaukee goalie Connor Ingram only for this rebound to land in the lap of Ty Dellandrea, who swept it home for a 1-0 lead 8:22 into the game. Dellandrea's goal, his 23rd of the season, moved him into a tie with Joel L'Esperance for team-lead in that department.
Aided by two scoreless power play chances, the Stars outshot Milwaukee 15-4 in the opening period and took their 1-0 lead to the intermission.
The second period of late has been a period of strength for the Stars and they wasted no time getting things started in Wednesday's middle frame. Just over two minutes into the second and right after a solid Michael Karow open ice hit that clearly galled the Ads, veteran Tanner Kero tried a centering feed from the left circle that went off an Admiral skate and right to Kawaguchi. Kawaguchi, playing in his first game after missing the past seven, found the puck conveniently on his tape and the southpaw fired it home from the left dot to give Texas some breathing room at 2-0 just 2:14 into the period.
With Milwaukee still fuming over the Karow hit earlier, Texas' Jerad Rosburg was able to draw the Admirals' Mathieu Olivier into two penalties to send the Stars on a four-minute power play just moments later. Texas was unable to mount any kind of threat as Milwaukee's stingy neutral zone work, prevented the Stars from entering the offensive zone, much-less generate any chances. The Stars added a third scoreless power play late in the period to finish 0-for-5 on the advantage Wednesday night.
As Texas took their 2-0 lead to the dressing room for the second intermission having outshot the Ads 9-5 for the period and 24-9 to that point, the game still did not feel in control for the Stars, despite the young netminder Murray not yet having been really tested in the contest.
The Admirals answered the bell for the third, but so did Murray. The young netminder turned-away seven shots in the opening minutes of the frame before L'Esperance was called for cross-checking five minutes in.
The Stars PK unit met the challenge, holding the Admirals without a shot and even just missing on a Gardner breakaway late in the kill.
Despite being deflated by the Stars successful penalty kill just moments before, Milwaukee was able to maintain offensive possession and began a barrage of vulcanized rubber fired Murray's way. The Admirals finally broke up the UMass alum's shutout bid 8:42 into the third, not on a second chance point, nor a third, but a fourth chance shot. After three different Ads peppered Murray with point-blank shots, Graham Knott finally got one past Murray to not only end the shutout, but to halve the Stars precarious lead to 2-1.
After Knott's goal, Milwaukee continued the pressure, keeping the Stars on their heels for the majority of the period. The Admirals had an opportunity to knot the game with their second and final power play chance with 7:42 left in the game, but once again the Stars - and Murray - met the challenge.
Milwaukee kept their unrelenting pressure on Texas forcing the Stars to play many stressful minutes before Kawaguchi provided some much-needed relief late in the game.
With time winding down and after an extended stretch in their own defensive zone, Texas' Riley Damiani intercepted an errant pass at his own blue line. Damiani took the gift, cleared it through the neutral zone, dishing it to Tanner Kero after entering the offensive zone. Kero then passed it cross-ice to a waiting Kawaguchi in the right circle, who promptly shot it past Ingram's glove-side to give the Stars a much-needed lift at 3-1 with 4:25 left.
Milwaukee was unable to generate much of a threat before taking their timeout and pulling Ingram with 3:13 left. With the Ads in full desperation mode, Texas' captain Curtis McKenzie delivered the knockout-blow with an empty netter, his 20th goal of the season, with 44 seconds left that sent the crowd of 4,099 to the gates and secured the Stars 4-1 win. Milwaukee outshot Texas 22-5 over the final 20 minutes with Murray's 21-saves tying for the third-most third period saves by a goalie in the league this season.
Murray ended the night stopping 30-of-31 as his professional record improved to 2-1. The rookie netminder now has a team-best GAA% of 2.37 on a save percentage of .916, also to lead the team.
Milwaukee's Ingram saved 25-of-28, saw his record fall to 29-17-7-5.
With their pivotal victory, Texas improves to 29-28-6-6 (70 pts/.507%) to remain within striking distance of the Wild (31-28-4-5 - 71 pts/.522%) as the Stars head to a decisive two-game set in Des Moines starting Friday, with the season in the balance.
Injuries, scratches and notes
Comeau (injury, has not played)
Khudobin (injury, out for season)
Roth, Martin, Jurusik (just reported)
Lipanov, Woods, Barteaux (scratch)
Tonight's attendance was 4,099.