|(Photo Credit: Ross Bonander/Texas Stars)
Cedar Park, TX - A night after the Texas Stars skated to an exciting 4-3 overtime win, Texas turned in one of their staler performances of the season, dropping a 5-1 contest to the Coachella Valley Firebirds in front of another sellout crowd of 6,778 at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park Saturday night. It was the Stars second consecutive sellout and seventh of the season.
Texas was able to keep it close through forty minutes, but ultimately the grind of six games in ten days, with heavy travel on three of those proved to be too much as Coachella pulled away in the third.
"Collectively had our plan for that [third] period. It just never really got back in sync," Texas head coach Neil Graham said after the game.
For the second straight night, Coachella Valley got the upper hand in under two minutes. Before everyone had made it through the turnstiles, Max McCormick gave the Firebirds the 1-0 lead with a snapshot past Stars goalie Matt Murray just 1:38 into the game.
The recently hot-running Riley Damiani leveled the game when he went top-right glove side on Coachella Valley's netminder Ales Stezka with 10:05 left in the opening stanza, making it 1-1. The goal was Damiani's third in as many games.
Texas almost immediately went on the power play following Damiani's tally, sending the sellout crowd into a full-throated frenzy. The excitement was short-lived as just eighteen seconds into the advantage, John Hayden five-holed Murray for his second shorthanded goal of the weekend to make it 2-1 with 8:51 left in the first.
Texas ended the night 0-for-3 on the power play
The teams closed out the first with the Firebirds maintaining their 2-1 lead, despite having been outshot 11-9.
In the second, the Firebirds continued their series-long pattern of starting periods hot. McCormick netted his second of the night off a Kole Lind give-and-go, earning Coachella Valley a 3-1 lead just 1:02 into the middle frame.
"That's the one that really frustrated me, because it was still a hockey game" said Graham. "You have forty minutes to take a breath and get back to purpose and listen, I get it. Fatigue starts to creep in more as your mistakes creep in. And when you're on your toes and you're playing the right way, you seem to gather life and energy as we did last night."
While the teams went scoreless the rest of the second, the Firebirds really began to take control, as evidenced by their 13-7 shot advantage for the frame.
The game still seemed to be within reach for the Stars with 8:46 left in regulation, Hayden potted his second of the night to make it 4-1. Lind added another just 1:26 later for his third point of the night, and the writing was on the wall as Coachella Valley skated on to a 5-1 victory.
"You gotta tip your hat to the opponent," Graham concluded. "They're a very, very good team. We knew darn well after winning last night they'd have a response, as they did. It's just unfortunate. We couldn't make it a better fight for longer."
On the bright side, Texas' PK was a perfect 6-for-6 Saturday night and 7-for-7 for the series, quickly becoming a strength for this young team as they head to the second half of the schedule.
"Penalty kills have been good really since the middle of December," Graham said of his sixteenth ranked crew. "It's actually been a tool we've used to gain momentum. I think it's probably a better time to look breaks for another shorthanded goal or two, but that's not the prime objective. The flip side [is] we've actually we've killed off a lot of penalties and it's also built a lot of momentum."
Between the pipes, Murray stopped 24 of 29 in taking the loss that dropped his record 9-8-1-1. Stezka saw his record improve to 10-5-1-2 as he made 25 saves on 26 shots.
With the loss, Texas falls to 21-15-2-1 (45 pts.) and coupled with Milwaukee's tenth-straight win Saturday, the Stars fall ten points behind the Admirals. Grand Rapids also earned a win Saturday, to pull them into virtual tie with Texas having the tie-breaker edge heading into February.
Up next, the Stars get a bit of a breather after playing six games in ten days, Texas returns to the ice Friday, February 2nd for the opener of a two-game series at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park against the Bakersfield Condors. Faceoff on both Friday and Saturday is scheduled for 7:00 P.M.
Injuries, scratches and notes
J. Murray (scratch)
Bayreuther (out - ankle)
Stranges, Reedy, Caamano (out - upper body)
Wheatcroft (lower body)
Tonight's attendance was 6,778, a sellout.