|(Photo Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)|
Cedar Park, TX - The Texas Stars used two first period goals and saw rookie netminder Matt Murray turn away 20-of 22 shots in his professional debut as Texas opened a crucial three-game series against the division-leading Chicago Wolves (Carolina Hurricanes affiliate) with a 3-2 win in front of 3,847 fans at H-E-B Center at Cedar Park Wednesday night.
The sixth-place Stars came into Wednesday night's game trailing the Iowa Wild by a game in the standings while also riding a three-game losing streak -including the last two to Iowa - that saw the Stars fall out of the fifth-and-final playoff spot in the Central.
The Stars set the tone early. Just over a minute-and-a-half into the game the Stars' Ty Dellandrea and Chicago rookie Jack Drury dropped the gloves in one of the longer and more entertaining fights of the season. The fight went the distance and Dellandrea won on the cards, and it was clear that Texas was not going to be intimidated by the first-place Wolves. Drury was also called for high sticking, sending Texas on their first of seven power plays on the night.
With the crowd immediately drawn in and the Texas bench clearly inspired by Dellandrea's action, the Stars power play unit got them on the board first just over a minute into the advantage. Joel L'Esperance took an Anthony Louis cross-ice pass, walked into the right circle and went top-shelf over Wolves goalie Pyotr Kochetkov's glove shoulder for his team-leading 22nd goal of the season, giving Texas the 1-0 lead just 3:06 into the game.
Texas finished the night 1-for-7 on the advantage.
Opening the scoring would bode well for the Stars as they had come into the game only having lost 10 times in regulation when being the first to crack the scoreboard, but with Chicago's high-powered offense, it was not time to relax.
Texas expanded their lead less than five minutes later when Ryan Shea, streaking down the left side threaded the needle across the ice to Riley Damiani, who was going down as he was skating towards the crease but got enough on the puck to put it past a stunned Kochetkov to give Texas the lead at 2-0 just over eight minutes into the game. Damiani's goal, a career-high 13th of the season, was just his second since March 18th.
Texas killed off a Chicago power play midway through the first but late in the period with Rhett Gardner in the box for interference, the Wolves league-leading goal scorer Stefan Noesen took a Drury pass in front of the net, swept it to his forehand and lifted a knuckler past the rookie netminder Murray to cut the Stars lead to 2-1 with just a minute left in the period.
"Obviously you never like to get scored on. It was an unfortunate bounce and a bit of a scrum in front." Murray said of giving up his first goal as a pro. But at the end of the day, we scored more goals than they did so that's all it matters."
The Stars carried the 2-1 to the locker room after outshooting Chicago 8-7 in the opening frame.
Texas maintained their lead over the opening half of the second period before finally adding an insurance goal from Frederik Karlstrom. Karlstrom's goal, his 15th of the season, extended his hot streak as it was his third in the last five games was set up from a juicy rebound off a Josh Melnick shot, gave Texas a 3-1 lead with 11:15 left in the middle frame.
As time waned in the second right after a couple of stellar Murray saves, Chicago scored again to cut the lead to 3-2 when Wolves defenseman Jesper Sellgren fired a shot from the left point that noted Stars-pest Ryan Suzuki redirected past Murray to his glove-side with 4:20 left.
The teams headed to the second intermission after a period that saw each team with eight shots in the stanza.
The teams skated through a scoreless third period but was not without plenty of action. Texas went 0-for-3 on the power play in the period, including over 40 seconds on a 5-on-3 but were unable to get to Kochetkov the remainder of the way.
Murray faced several challenges of his own in the third, including once on the kill, but looked down all seven shots he saw in the final frame. Chicago pulled Kochetkov with just under two minutes left but were unable to solve the UMass alum in the final moments and the Stars went on to win by a 3-2 final.
"I thought he did a real nice job." Graham said of Murray's pro debut. "His goalie handles were good, he made some key saves for us and I thought he settled in well."
Kochetkov finished his night with 19 saves on 22 shots, took his first regulation loss of his young career and saw his record fall to 11-1-1 on the season.
The 24-year-old Murray is now a perfect 1-0 in his career.
"It feels great," the rookie netminder said of his first pro win. "It's something that I've been working for, for a long time, and to get this opportunity, it's been great."
Texas' win, coupled with Iowa's 2-1 shootout loss in Milwaukee Wednesday night, leaves the Stars in sixth at 28-26-6-6 (68 pts/.515%) but in a virtual tie with the Wild who's record now sits at 29-27-4-5 (67 pts/.515%) with Texas having six games remaining - with two next week in Des Moines.
"[We] can't worry about Iowa right now." Graham concluded. They're playing their games, we're playing our games. We've got to focus on our games. Everyone playing hockey right now realizes the stakes are high, so every game is a big game. We have to reset tomorrow recognize we did a lot of good things here today, but Chicago's going to be ready to go Friday and we have to be ready as well."
Texas will host Chicago Friday night at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park in the middle game of this three-game series. Face off Friday is set for 7:00 p.m.
Injuries, scratches and notes
Comeau (injury, has not played)
Khudobin (injury, out for season)
Roth (just reported)
Jurusik, Kawaguchi, Gregoire, Lipanov, Martin, Woods, Barteaux (scratch)
Tonight's attendance was 3,847.