|(Photo Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
The teams face each other in the postseason for the fourth time in their history and for the first time since Texas crushed the hearts of the IceHog faithful in the 2018 Western Conference Finals. The Stars eliminated Rockford in six games, four of which went to overtime, to advance to the Calder Cup Final that season.
Prior to the 2018 meeting, the teams faced each other twice, each team having earned a sweep: Texas 4-0 in 2010 and Rockford closing out the Stars in three in the opening round of the 2015 tournament.
The '21-22 season series was much the same with Texas coming out slightly ahead, going 4-3-1 in the head-to-head matchup. Each of the series ended in a weekend split with Texas winning Oct. 28 (4-3) and Dec. 18 (3-2) at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park, followed by wins Jan. 21 (5-2) and Feb. 27 (3-2) at BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford. The IceHogs won Oct. 30 (4-3) and Dec. 17 (3-1) in Cedar Park, as well as Jan. 22 in a shootout (3-2) and Feb. 26 (7-4) in Rockford.
A series split is not afforded to the teams as this is the Calder Cup Playoff and unfortunately for the Stars, there will be no reprieve at home as the entire three-game series, if it goes that far, will be played in Rockford. Texas has not played at home since a 6-4 loss to Chicago on April 16th.
The saving grace for Texas is that they have been strong on the road as of late, winning four straight, must-win games to punch their ticket into the dance. Season-long, every time the Stars backs were against the wall and with their season just about written-off, time and time again - particularly on the road - they would surprisingly prevail.
Rockford meanwhile with a chance to clinch the #3 seed in the Central as the season waned, lost four-of-six, three of which were at home, to fall to the fourth seed.
The teams are about as evenly matched as you can find in the AHL, and it's a shame that the league's idea of rewarding a team for making the playoffs is to make them play entirely on the road, but that's a discussion for another day.
As 100 Degree Hockey began our analysis of the series, we decided to ask around to some of the other experts to get their feel for how it will end up, and why.
Brian Sweet, Blackout Dallas - "I have officially crowned the AHL for having the craziest playoff bracket ever created. The Texas Stars find themselves on the road for a 3-game series against The Rockford IceHogs. It's going to be a tough since the series is all on the road and the Stars won’t have a home game. The Texas Stars have had excellent goaltending of late, led by rookie Matthew Murray, to protect the net against IceHogs top two scorers Lukas Reichel and veteran Brett Connolly. Stars need to get some offense from Anthony Louis, Joel L’Esperance, Ty Dellandrea and Curtis McKenzie if they want to advance to the next round. It will be a tough environment without a home game for Texas, but they've been good on the road lately, so there's a good chance they prevail."
Prediction: TEXAS IN THREE
Wally Mazurek, Chicago Prospects/Substack - "The Rockford IceHogs have been one of the more interesting AHL teams this season. They’re a young and inexperienced bunch, but they’re pesky and can make you pay if you’re not careful. The Texas Stars have also fought through adversity this season. They were in a fight for the final playoff spot for most of the last month. They barely got in but earned their spot by ending their season on a four-game win streak.
For Texas’ to win, their goaltending needs to stay hot (Matthew Murray has a .947 save% in his last 6 games), they need to use their superior special teams play to their advantage (eighth best power play, 14th best penalty kill) and they need to take advantage of the IceHogs’ league worst 44.6% shot share%.
For the Rockford IceHogs it’s important that they stay efficient (seventh best shooting%), their star players need to play like star players (Arvid Söderblom, Lukas Reichel, Ian Mitchell, etc.) and they have to be better at limiting shots against (last in the league).
I feel like this series could go either way, and I think it’s going to go to three games. I know that the Texas Stars are better statistically head-to-head, but with the star power that the Rockford IceHogs have and with the reinforcements that they’re getting (Alec Regula, Colton Dach and Nolan Allan) I feel like the IceHogs have the edge."
Prediction: ROCKFORD IN THREE
Courtney Bauman, From Center Ice Podcast - "Call me superstitious, but I have a hard time ever predicting my team to win, in any situation! I'll also add that the wound from the last time these two teams met in the post-season is still fresh for me.
This season, the Rockford IceHogs games against the Texas Stars were impossible to predict. It seemed like when the Stars were down and out, they'd come out with a solid game and win. When you'd expect them to keep playing well, the IceHogs blow them out. It's an interesting matchup.
The IceHogs definitely have the skill, but they absolutely MUST keep their emotions in check. I'll be hoping for the best but expecting the worst!"
Prediction: TEXAS IN THREE (see: Superstitious)
Tanner Wilson, Texas Sports Review-Hockey - "With the Texas Stars improved defense over the final month of the regular season. With the likes of Ben Gleason, Michael Karow and Alex Petrovic manning the blue line, the Stars keep the games close. Their best shot of advancing out of the first round is to keep the score low. During their season ending four game winning streak that helped them clinch a playoff spot; their best two games were against the Iowa Wild when they won 1-0 and 2-1. It will allow the Stars to get a game. But with Rockford’s offense with players like Lukas Reichl, Brett Connolly and Josiah Slavin, I think this will put the Ice Hogs over the top and eventually winning the series.
Prediction: ROCKFORD IN THREE
As you can tell, it's a hard call either way. When pressed, IceHogs play-by-play announcer, Joe Zakrzewski declined to give a prediction but said simply: "I think it will be a great series. [It's]Sad that it is so short. Going 4-4-0 against them in the regular season and a rematch of the 2018 Western Conference Finals will be a fun run!"
As for me, I've gone back and forth on where I stand. Without a doubt, I stand with my colleagues in thinking that this goes the full three games.
As mentioned, Texas has been on fire, winning four-straight, on the road, while riding the shoulders of a hot, rookie netminder in Murray. The UMass alum has big-time, big-game experience as evidenced by the NCAA Championship to his credit, had an eye-popping 132 saves on the 136 shots he faced (.971 SV%), while leading the Stars to their four-game, playoff-clinching streak. The St. Albert, AB native has not seen the IceHogs this season.
Texas will hope to get a lift from Frederik Karlstrom, recently reassigned to Texas from Dallas. Karlstrom earned a trip to the big club with four goals in seven games and rode a three-game point streak prior to his callup. With Texas averaging 2.75 goals per game in his absence, Karlstrom may be the offensive player to watch.
Rockford on the other hand, despite clinching their spot in the postseason before the Stars, had some challenges down the stretch as noted, and while they didn't exactly back their way in, they certainly would have preferred the first-round bye.
The net for the IceHogs belongs to Söderblom and Rockford will go as far as he takes them. The rookie Swede had a strong season but found himself in a bit of a slump, allowing an uncharacteristic 3.06 goals per game over the final 10 days (five games) of the season.
Offensively, Lukas Reichel will lead the way for the IceHogs. The 2021-22 Rookie of the Year paced Rockford in the season series with three goals and four assists for seven points in the eight games against the Stars.
When it came down to it, I kept coming back to Texas having to win four-straight on the road, just to get into the playoffs, expecting them to win an additional two-of-three is a big ask.
Prediction: TEXAS IN THREE
My reasoning? Simple. Every time I counted the Stars out and wrote them off, they surprised. In the midst of a midseason slump at the end of a brutal road trip, they headed to Chicago and won. Written off after poor play, COVID and weather wrecked their schedule in early January, they bounced back to get right back in the chase with points in 15-of-20 games from mid-January through the end of February. Even as Texas closed out their final putrid homestand that included a sweep at the hands of Iowa, I along with the editor, began to plan for exit interviews with the team after the season ending road trip and I began the "well-wishes 'til September" to the arena folks, even then, I wrote them off.
Consider it lesson learned. Enjoy your playoff season.