|(Photo Credit: Iowa Wild)|
Des Moines, IA - Texas Stars rookie goalie Matt Murray put the fortunes of the team's fate on his shoulders and stared down 38 Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild affiliate) shots while Iowa's Zane McIntyre matched him save-for-save, until Joel L'Esperance saved the offensive heroics for late and scored the lone goal of the contest with 3:26 left, leading Texas to a clutch 1-0 win over Iowa Friday night at Wells Fargo Arena.
With Iowa holding a one game lead on Texas for the fifth-and-final playoff spot in the Central Division, the teams opened a crucial two-game series, a series that will likely determine the postseason future for both teams.
Texas came into series, and the game, absolutely needing to win in regulation. The Wild, in the driver's seat since sweeping two games in Cedar Park last week, entered the game with a magic number of four, meaning any combination of four Iowa wins and Stars losses, and Texas' offseason tee times would start next week.
The teams opened the game with Texas very much the aggressor, outshooting the Wild 13-8 in the opening frame. The Wild seemed content spending a lot of time just dumping and chasing and never really threatened Murray, playing in just his fourth game as a pro. Iowa, the most penalized team in the league - and by a lot - also didn't have a problem putting Texas on the power play either, sending the Stars on the advantage twice thru the first before adding a third with just eight seconds left in the opening period.
The Texas PK unit went unchallenged on their lone time on the job in the first.
The second period Iowa began to turn up the pressure. Murray, coming off of a 30-save win against Milwaukee on Wednesday, was at time just flat out larcenous in turning away 17 second period Iowa shots. Just over five minutes into the period and having just come off of a power play opportunity, Iowa became very aggressive on their forecheck and was able to attack effectively in the offensive zone. The UMass alum Murray turned away point-blank shots from Kevin Czuczman and Alexander Khovanov while Michael Karow and Ryan Shea did their jobs blocking shots in front of the rookie.
Texas scuffled offensively throughout the period, sending 12 shots McIntyre's way, all of which were easily flicked away by the veteran netminder. The offensive struggles did not translate to the defensive end however, as midway through the period, the defensive corps came under heavy pressure as Murray fended off successive shots from Mason Shaw, Nick Swaney and Mitchell Chaffee excellent pad saves on shots, while blueliners Alex Petrovic and Jerad Rosburg handled their duties standing up attackers before finally clearing the zone.
Murray closed out the period with six saves over the final three-and-a-half minutes to bring the stanza to a merciful end.
With so much on the line in a scoreless game, the tension mounted as the third period began. Only really needing to get to overtime, Iowa did not come out as aggressive to start the third. Six minutes into the period, Jeremy Gregoire breaking towards the net, threw on the brakes and ended up in McIntyre's lap to send Iowa on the power play. After McIntyre and Hicketts cross checked Gregoire a couple of times each and the puck ended up at the other end with a Murray stop, Iowa's Cody McLeod dropped the gloves to go at it with Texas' Riley Tufte. Tufte refused but no call was made against Iowa, drawing the ire of Texas coach Neil Graham.
Texas did manage to kill off the penalty without too much of a threat. The Stars were given their makeup call moments after the kill when Anthony Louis was high sticked, but McIntyre still went unblemished.
With Texas desperately needing to win in regulation and the time winding down, after an extended stretch in their own end, the Stars were finally able to break out when L'Esperance freed the puck from the zone and Karow lifted it into the neutral zone where it was met by Louis. Louis took it to the corner, handed it to L'Esperance who cut in front of the net and lifted it over a sprawling McIntyre's pad to give Texas the first lead just over 56 minutes into the game.
With the Stars recent history of scoring big goals, only to give up bigger goals moments later could not be far from the minds of the visitors. Things became even more precarious shortly after the goal when Petrovic was called for tripping, sending the Stars back on the penalty kill with just 2:45 left in the game - and one of their top penalty killers in the box.
Making things even more complex, knowing they would have an offensive zone faceoff, the Wild took their timeout and came out of it with McIntyre pulled.
As with the tone set to that point, "Big Game Matt" stared down every challenge and the penalty kill unit completed their perfect 4-for-4 night. Petrovic emerged from the box in time for one last Wild rush and two final Murray saves as the clock expired and the Stars held on for the season-saving - for the moment - victory.
Murray's shutout, his first as a pro, was the first for a Texas Stars goalie since Landon Bow shutout Rockford 1-0 January 22, 2020. Murray's pro record improves to 3-1 and he should get some consideration for weekly honors, depending on the outcome of his likely start on Saturday. Murray's GAA% now sits at 1.77 behind a .942 save percentage.
McIntyre, coming off of a 38-save shutout of his own April 10th against the Stars, ended his night saving 33-of-34 as his record fell to 20-13-3-2.
The teams now in a virtual tie for the final playoff spot, Texas sitting at 30-28-6-6 (72 pts/.514%) behind Iowa 31-29-4-5 (71 pts/.514%) square off again Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena. Faceoff is set for 6:00 p.m. Iowa has one game in hand after Saturday's game.
Injuries, scratches and notes
Comeau (injury, has not played)
Khudobin (injury, out for season)
Roth, Martin, Jurusik, Caamano, Lipanov, Woods, Barteaux (scratch)
Tonight's attendance was 7,913.