|(Credit: Ross Bonander/Texas Stars)|
Seeking a series sweep for the first time since 2014, the Stars got all they ordered and more with a 4-2 victory over the visiting IceHogs to advance to the Central Division Finals in front of 6,338 at home. They will face either Milwaukee or Manitoba in the next round pending the conclusion of that series after their first series win since May 2018, also against these same Rockford IceHogs.
Coach Graham was happy after the game. "We're obviously pleased with the series win and getting [the first] playoff game back here in Cedar Park since 2018. Our fans deserved victory, and our guys played hard for him."
Texas got stellar play from their netminder Matt Murray, who stopped 27 of 29 shots and withstood a third period onslaught that pelted him with 13. "In the third, they kind of came at us and he made some huge saves," said Rhett Gardner. "He's been our backbone and definitely gives us a little more confidence in front of him."
Following his re-insertion into the lineup, Riley Damiani wasted no time making his mark. Off a tip from Ben Gleason's point shot, Damiani found twine for the opening goal. Coach Graham said at morning skate that the coaching staff looked at the game tape from games 1 and 2 and felt Damiani's skillset was well-suited for tonight's closeout Game 3. It was clearly the right call.
"He had great legs and great energy," said Graham of Damiani's game. "He's been champing at the bit. He had great life, great energy. I thought he did a great job tonight."
Power plays flew back and forth through out the game as the truculent IceHogs threw their weight around and Texas got into the fray as well. Michael Teply evened the score five minutes after the Stars' opener with a power play tally. It was a weird play where Murray appeared to have the puck covered but it squirted free for the chance.
Persistence was the name of the game for the third goal of the night. Texas got shots from Rhett Gardner, Riley Tufte and Nick Caamano before the final shot pierced Soderblom. It was a backhander up high from the most dangerous fourth line in the AHL.
"It doesn't really matter where you are on the lineup card. We roll them pretty equally. And they play heavy, they play consistent, they're very predictable to each other"
Texas and Rockford got into a bit of rough stuff as the Hogs tried to knock the home side off their game. Even captain Curtis McKenzie got pulled into the fracas. The Stars matched the physical play from the Hogs with facility.
A somewhat rough end to the first period gave way to a calmer second period with no scoring either way. Texas only had two shots in the frame. The Stars did have a nervy moment when defender Oskari Laaksonen went awkwardly into the boards and headed directly off the ice holding his wrist. Laaksonen returned to start the third period.
If there was any concern about Laaksonen's wrist, he dispelled that early in the third as he whipped one from the hashes far side on Soderblom for the 3-1 lead.
|(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)|
"He was banged up, and I'm not sure not feeling very good. I'm sure he's not feeling very good right now. But it's playoffs, and he came back and you know, gutsy effort in the third."
Rhett Gardner pushed the lead to 4-1 with a power play goal late that all but iced things. The Hogs would score with Soderblom on the bench and just 16 seconds left on the clock, but it was for naught. The Stars took the victory to chants of "SWEEP" from the home crowd.
Gardner added on the sweep, "I thought we came ready to go. The coaches did a good job of getting us ready and I thought our mentality was right where it needed to be right off the hop and we did a good job all three games."
Now Texas has to wait. Manitoba leads Milwaukee 2-1 in their best-of-three series. That series will wrap by Saturday night at the latest. In all likelihood, Texas will start on the road in either Wisconsin or Manitoba late next week.
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)
Tonight's attendance was 6,338.
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