|(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)|
In their first winner-take-all game since 2018, the Stars fought valiantly after falling behind 4-0 early but ultimately were eliminated from the postseason by the Milwaukee Admirals tonight by a 5-2 margin. Milwaukee moves on to play Coachella Valley for a berth in the Calder Cup Finals.
Coach Neil Graham led off an emotionally charged but somber postgame availability.
"I've been fortunate to coach a lot of good hockey teams and ... in my eleven years coaching I thought that was probably the overall best group I've been a part of. They have gone through a lot this year, a lot of adversity and a lot of things that not everyone knows about. It obviously hurts a lot right now that we weren't able to move on to the next round but I didn't want to ignore the good things that our group has done. I'm very proud of this group."
Captain Curtis McKenzie added, "It was a team this year. I've never really played on a team like that with the depth we had and everyone contributing. It wasn't a few guys dragging the team along. It was everybody that stepped up and how much guys grew throughout the years. Pretty proud of all the guys from where we were to where we finished."
The game truly hinged on 3:45 of clock in the first period. Adam Wilsby, Marc Del Gaizo and Joakim Kemell scored in rapid succession to claim a 3-0 lead for the Ads in the middle of the frame.
"I actually thought we were the better team [early]," said Graham." We just made the bigger mistakes... Unfortunately, we compounded a few. It was by committee, so no one was isolated in that area. We all had to clean things up, and the flip side is you're down 4-0."
It's hard to pinpoint what the difference was this evening. There were two should-have-had-it clears that came back to haunt them. There was a goal on the power play, which you just can't give up to Milwaukee's 27.6% unit.
Wilsby's opening goal was just a timid transition play, forced by Dawson Barteaux up the right-wing wall and reclaimed by the Ads. Milwaukee grabbed the puck and came back in transition for the goal. Del Gaizo's marker was the most understandable, a point shot through heavy traffic.
With Riley Damiani in the box for a high stick, Kemell scored his first of the night from the left-wing dot. Kiefer Sherwood found him all alone across the ice to beat Matt Murray.
Kemell wasn't done, however. Texas had a fault in the breakout as Oskari Laaksonen passed from behind his net to Rhett Gardner directly in front of the net. Gardner wasn't expecting the pass and the Ads jumped on it. After a bit of cycling, Kemell tipped Del Gaizo's shot from the right point to make it 4-0 on 14 shots.
Remi Poirier would start the second period.
The Stars got a little bit of energy early in the period with Riley Damiani scoring coming off the bench from the top of the circles, straight down the middle. Texas pelted Yaroslav Askarov with 17 shots but still left the period with only that goal. The Stars had two power plays in the second but only managed one shot on the second, earning a chorus of boos from the home fans.
After a series full of goalie handles from Askarov, Texas finally made him pay for his romaing ways late in the game. With the Stars on a 5-on-3, Nick Caamano popped out of the box just in time to catch a great two-line pass and dip around Askarov, who threw his blocker and stick at the forward, and score to make it 4-2.
The Stars would go empty net with just over three minutes left. It would not bear fruit. The Ads scored an empty netter to make it 5-2 and finish the Stars' season. With the loss, all four regular-season divisional winners have been eliminated from the postseason.
McKenzie finished his interview on the verge of tears, clearly emotional over the end of the run but also possibly at the prospect of this being his last season. McKenzie does not have a contract yet for the coming year. He reflected on this being the end of the 2022-23 Texas Stars season.
"It's the toughest part, especially when you know what you had. It's minor league sports and sports in general. Guys go in; guys go out. We have a lot of great players, from what I've heard, coming in next year, so I'm sure the team will be shaped accordingly.
"You know how I feel about playing here and what a privilege it is to wear the jersey."
Injuries, scratches and notes
Olofsson, Harley, Wells (callup)
Thomson, Mastrodonato, Blumel, Grushnikov, Berard, Wheatcroft, Arcuri (scratch)
Karlstrom (out for season - knee injury)
Butcher (out for season)
Jerad Rosburg skated in warmups tonight. He last played for Texas on November 19, 2022, injuring his shoulder.