|(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
The Texas Stars will face elimination on Friday after falling 4-3 in tonight's Game 3 of the Central Division Final against the visiting Milwaukee Admirals. It was a back-and-forth game that saw four lead changes between the two clubs and winning goal scored with just 61 seconds remaining.
"It's tough when the final goal goes in at the end," said head coach Neil Graham. "We knew it was going to be a tight-checking series, a hard series, and tonight was no different."
Much was made of the blue line for Texas, which was missing Will Butcher and Oskari Laaksonen in the last contest. Laaksonen returned tonight; Butcher is now officially out for the season. It's a huge loss for the club, which has relied on the steady hand of Butcher as a veteran on the backend.
The three goals that the Stars did get were all scored by defensemen: Ben Gleason, Dawson Barteaux and Alex Petrovic.
"It's something that we've had a lot of this year," said Gleason. "We've had a lot of [defensemen] score this year, and it's been something that's been big for this team. We're getting our shots through and we're getting good screens from our forwards. That's something that's huge for us right now."
Now the Stars face an elimination game for the first time this season on Friday night.
"We know what the stakes are," said Graham. "That doesn't change because it's now Game 4. We've just got to stay in the moment, worry about your next play. If your last play was good, move on from it. If your last play was bad, move on from it."
Milwaukee head coach Karl Taylor intoned a similar message in his postgame availability, saying his team would "enjoy [the win] for an hour and then we'll get ready for the next one."
Milwaukee opened the scoring in this one with a goal by Isaac Ratcliffe in just his second game of the playoffs. It was the only scoring action of the first period where Texas seemed disjointed, a bad sign overall for their fast, connected game. The Stars did not have a shot on goal from 12:12 of the first to 3:25 of the second as they tried just a touch too hard to force the plays they had previously executed with facility.
The Stars went to the room down 1-0.
"I liked our first fifteen [minutes]," said Coach Graham. "We gave up a goal, an uncharacteristic breakdown on goal one, and then I thought the last four or five minutes of that period we changed our identity slightly and that's something that we addressed [in the room] and you've got to clean up."
Gleason evened things up for the Stars with a rifle of a shot from the top of the circles early in the second, breaking in all alone in transition off the pass from Tanner Kero. Just over a minute later, Milwaukee had an answer from Joakim Kemell after the Stars couldn't clear the zone on repeated attempts.
The home crowd of 6,320 seemed restless as the third started, but their Stars gave them huge life early in the period. Barteaux, who was playing limited minutes to begin with, made the most of the time. He rebounded a shot from Marian Studenic off some nice board work from Curtis McKenzie.
Twenty six seconds later, Petrovic set the place on fire with a point shot through traffic to make it a 3-2 Texas lead. With rally towels in full effect, the crowd was electric.
It seemed like the clubs were destined for overtime after a second effort goal by Egor Afanasyev found twine to make it 3-3. Ads coach Taylor praised the effort from Phil Tomasino on the primary assist of the goal.
With time winding down, Ratcliffe scored his second of the game, tipping a point shot from Marc Del Gaizo through the legs of Murray. The Stars went empty net but could not establish themselves in the zone in the remaining 61 seconds.
Texas faces Milwaukee again in Game 4 on Friday at 7 PM.
Injuries, scratches and notes
Olofsson, Harley, Wells (callup)
Thomson, Mastrodonato, Stranges, Grushnikov, Berard, Wheatcroft, Arcuri (scratch)
Rosburg (out for season - upper-body injury)
Karlstrom (out for season - knee injury)
Butcher (out for season)
Will Butcher is now officially out for the season after his injury in Game 1 of the series.
Tonight's attendance was 6,320.