Opportunity Lost: Texas Drops 4-3 Heartbreaker to Wolves

(Photo Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

 Cedar Park, TX - The Texas Stars Joel L'Esperance scored a power play goal and assisted on another while Frederik Karlstom potted his fourth in six games, but Texas was unable to overcome two Ivan Lodonia goals and fell 4-3 to the Chicago Wolves (Carolina Hurricanes affiliate) Friday night at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park.

"They're a good opponent. I don't think that's a surprise to anyone." Texas Stars Head Coach Neil Graham said after the game. 

With Iowa losing 3-1 Friday night in Grand Rapids, Texas had a chance to move into sole possession of the fifth-and-final Central Division playoff spot with a point, and a chance to gain some separation with a win.

The Stars asserted their authority early in the game, hoping to set the tone that worked in Wednesday's victory. The Stars dominated the possession time over the first half of the first, having outshot the Wolves 6-1 midway through the frame before Chicago went on a pair of power plays that tested Stars netminder Matt Murray early. The rookie netminder turned away all four shots he faced as Texas successfully killed off each advantage.

The teams played 4-on-4 for 30 seconds at the tail-end of the Wolves second power play and just as Texas was getting their first chance on the power play for themselves, Chicago was called for another penalty to give Texas a minute-and-a-half on the 5-on-3.

As the officials sorted things out, Wolves starting goalie Alex Lyon left the game due to injury, bringing in March's AHL Goalie of the Month Pyotr Kochetkov, who came in having only lost once in regulation - Wednesday to Texas - in 2021-22.

No sooner had the penalty announcement been made for the penalty, L'Esperance took an Anthony Louis pass and fired it top corner on Kochetkov's glove-side from the right circle for his 23rd goal of the season to give Texas the first lead of the night at 1-0. Defenseman Ben Gleason was also credited with his 33rd assist of the season, tying the team-record set by Julius Honka in the 2015-16 season.

The ink had barely dried on the L'Esperance goal when he had a chance to find the twine once again. After the ensuing faceoff win, the big Michigan native was connected by Louis again and with everyone in the arena thinking he was going to shoot as he headed netward, at the last possible second L'Esperance pulled it back, passed it to Tanner Kero who shot it over Kochetkov's left shoulder to extend the Stars lead to 2-0 with 2:46 left in the first, on the first two shots the Russian netminder saw.

With the wind in their sails and momentum heavily in the Stars direction, the life of the 5,788 in attendance was sucked right out when for the second time in as many games, Chicago scored a last-minute first period goal. With just 1:07 left in the opening period, the Wolves' Chris Bigras fired a shot from the top of the left circle, catching just enough of Karlstrom who was defending in the slot, to deflect it away from Murray and have it trickle across the goal line to cut the Stars lead in half at 2-1 as they headed to the intermission. The teams were square at nine shots apiece at the end of the first.

Chicago picked up where they left off the first and maintained the momentum early in the second. Karlstrom took an unsportsmanlike penalty to put Chicago on the power play just 49 seconds into the period. Texas killed off the penalty, but Chicago continued to apply pressure but found paydirt just moments after Karlstrom stepped back on the ice when Lodonia, left all alone in the slot, took a Jamieson Rees centering-pass from behind the goal and put it past Murray's stick-side to knot the score at 2-2 just 3:23 into the period.

"They scored a late goal on us Wednesday as well," Graham recalled. "Difference is rather than making it 3-1, it was 2-2, the momentum is shifted and then from there, there is a lot of time on our heels in the first 10 (minutes) of the second."

The period had plenty of ebbs and flows with neither team gaining an advantage before heading to the second intermission. Despite playing stronger in the second half of the second period, Texas was outshot 9-5 in the stanza.

"The big thing for me was we defended slow at stretches. The stretches where I thought we defended quicker and connected, we got pucks back quicker [and] had energy for the offense." Graham said. "The problem is that there was waves in between there. [A] ten minute stretch where you defending on your heels then a ten minute stretch when you're on your toes."

In almost a carbon-copy of the second, Chicago cracked the scoreboard first in the final frame. After a scramble in front of the net, Murray flicked-away a shot in traffic that Lodonia found on his tape, and he calmly swept it past the Stars goalie for his second goal of the night and just his fourth of the campaign, giving Chicago their first lead of the night at 3-2.

Texas continued to play tough and with desperation despite being outshot 12-7 in the final frame. With the crowd clearly anxious with time winding down, Wednesday night's hero Karlstrom brought the crowd to a frenzy when he took a Curtis McKenzie centering pass and drove towards the net and went top-shelf on Kochetkov's stick-side to tie the game back up at 3-3 with 7:26 left in the game.

The pandemonium was short-lived however as less than two minutes later, and after Texas turned the puck over behind their own net, Spencer Smallman did not match his moniker and scored the game winner when he snapped one top-shelf on Murray from the right circle to give Chicago the 4-3 lead with 5:28 left.

The Stars not without opportunities as time waned. Murray was pulled for the extra attacker with 2:30 left and Texas was given a late power play chance in the final seconds but despite peppering Kochetkov as time expired, Texas was unable to score the equalizer.

"Some of our best scoring chances from the second period on, we missed the net." Graham said of their late-game shortcomings. "You know you're not trying to, but sometimes in those stressful moments you're trying to pick the perfect play, when you just gotta probably put it on net."

Murray, finished the night saving 26-of-30, took his first professional loss to level his record at 1-1. Kochetkov saved 12-of-15 while picking up the win in relief of Lyons to see his record improve to 12-1-1. Lyons was a perfect 6-of-6 in his abbreviated appearance.

With the loss, the Stars record falls to 28-27-6-6 (68 pts/.507%), a mere percentage point behind the Wild who sit at 29-28-4-5 (67 pts/.508%).

"You know, our guys get it. It's playoff hockey right now. We have five games left.  There wasn't a guy out there that wasn't battling or putting his body on the line." Graham concluded. "Unfortunately they had a little better push than we did, just like we did Wednesday now it's about our response."

Texas will have another chance to keep their playoff hopes alive with a quick turnaround Saturday as they take on these same Chicago Wolves in the final regular season home game of '21-22. Faceoff at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park is slated for 7:00 p.m. Seating is limited for what is expected to be a sold-out game.

Tonight's lines
Karlstrom-Melnick-McKenzie (starters)

Shea-Cecconi (starters)


Injuries, scratches and notes
Comeau (injury, has not played)
Khudobin (injury, out for season)
Roth (just reported)
Kawaguchi, Gregoire, Lipanov, Woods, Barteaux (scratch)

Max Martin and Matt Jurusik were assigned to Idaho this week.

Tonight's attendance was 5,788.

AHL Gamesheet - Chicago at Texas - April 14, 2022