|(Photo Credit: Ross Bonander/Texas Stars)|
Cedar Park, TX - The Texas Stars got two goals apiece from Riley Barber and Oskar Back while Matt Murray played possibly his best game of the season, turning away 29-of-30 shots to lead Texas to a 4-1 win over the Tucson Roadrunners in front of 5,377 Saturday night at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park. With the win the Stars close out the 2022 portion of the season at the top of the Central Division standings while extending their point-streak to eleven games. Texas completed December with a 10-0-1 record.
In a game that was much closer than the final score would indicate, neither team was able to crack the scoreboard in the opening frame, however it was not without plenty of action as both netminders earned their money in the first period that saw Texas outshoot Tucson 15-13.
Texas broke the ice however in the second period when with Texas settled into their offensive zone, defenseman Will Butcher found Riley Barber at the top of the slot on the give and go to give Texas the 1-0 lead 3:37 into the frame.
The teams skated closely the remainder of the period that saw Texas outshoot the Roadrunners 9-7 and the teams headed to the second intermission in a 1-0 game.
With each netminder matching each other save-for-save for the first half of the third, Texas finally got to Tucson goalie Jon Gillies for a second time when Curtis McKenzie retrieved a loose puck from below the goal line and sent a no-look pass to an open Oskar Back streaking towards the yawning net and Back buried it for his first of two goals on the night to extend Texas' lead to 2-0 with 9:13 left in regulation.
With Murray standing on his head for most of the night, the lead seemed safe, however the Roadrunners made things interesting just 1:11 later when Roadrunner center Jean-Sebastien Dea found Murray's back door to halve the Stars lead at 2-1, spoiling Murray's chance at his third career AHL shutout with just 8:02 left in the game.
"I thought Murr was excellent tonight." Graham said of his young netminder. "I actually just told him the hallway that I thought it was his strongest game here."
Not many would disagree.
With the game clearly tightened up late, Texas had the chance to put the dagger into the Roadrunners when the Stars went on the power play with 3:55 left in the third. For the second time in as many nights, Barber met the call and buried a rocket past Gillies from the top of the right circle for his second goal of the night and league-leading 19th on the season to give Texas some cushion at 3-1 with 3:16 left. Butcher and Marian Studenic were credited with the helpers.
Texas ended the night 1-for-4 on the power play Saturday.
As time waned, the Roadrunners went empty net and with 2:14 left Oskar Back led a breakaway and finished with a virtual slam dunk for his second goal of the night to put a cap on the scoring for the evening, making what was a close game seem more distant.
Tuscon had a late chance on the power play in the final minute and even went 6-on-4 with the empty net, but could not convert and Texas eked out a 4-1 victory.
Texas' AHL-leading penalty kill was a perfect 5-for-5 Saturday, extending their league lead in that category. The Stars penalty kill only allowed three power play goals out of the 62 chances they were shorthanded in the month of December.
"We know what our identity is." Graham said of his stellar PK units. "But we've just got to stay with what we do and realize it brings us success and it brings us momentum."
With the win, Murray improved his record to 8-4-1 on the season while Gillies saved 29-of-32 in taking the loss.
Texas takes a day off on Sunday before traveling to Rockford to take on the division rival IceHogs Tuesday night at the BMO Harris Bank Center. Faceoff is set for 7:00 p.m.
Happy New Year y'all.
Injuries, scratches and notes
Karow, Ducharme, Stranges (scratch)
Rosburg (long-term upper-body injury)
Tonight's attendance was 5,377
1. TEX - R. Barber
2. TEX - M. Murray
3. TEX - O. Back