Texas Heating Up at Just the Right Time As They Face Milwaukee

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

If the Texas Stars are to make it out of the 'first' round this year, they'll have to do it against a very familiar foe: the Milwaukee Admirals.

The season story is well-trodden at this point, but let's still review. With electric play from Mavrik Bourque and Logan Stankoven in the first half of the season, Texas made its way to the best record in the Central Division. They had three players at the All-Star Game, the aforementioned pair and Matej Bl├╝mel, and their coach, Neil Graham, joined them.

In that moment, they were golden.

From there, Texas suffered injuries, recalls and surging rivals to land in the four seed against Manitoba. Having dispatched them in two, Milwaukee, who set a franchise record and nearly an AHL record with their 19-game win streak this season, is their reward. It wasn't all roses for Milwaukee though, as they went 11-12-1-1 after ending that streak.

"We're focused on in a couple areas for our group," said head coach Neil Graham when reached by phone on Tuesday. "We have some things that we address regardless of opponent that are important to our identity. We have some things that are unique in our matchup against Milwaukee. We've had a little bit of time to prepare accordingly. I feel like our guys have put in the work every day. And now we just have to make sure we're ready to execute for game one."

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

Graham was cagey as ever on what adjustments his staff made to get the turnaround on Manitoba from the end of the season's losses to two clear victories. Looking back at his history, I did notice that it was not a unique situation for the head coach, whose Steelheads had to play the Allen Americans nine times in a row to end the 2017-18 ECHL season and open the Kelly Cup playoffs. Idaho won that series 4-3.

Milwaukee is another team that Texas has seen a lot of this season. The final two games with the Ads could be big confidence boosters for the Stars. Texas won 3-1 on April 7th and lost a 4-3 heartbreaker in the final ten minutes on April 6th. The team's poise in playing with a lead against Manitoba shows that they've matured even in the month since those games.

Despite their general dominance this season, the Ads are actually just a game above 0.500 on the Stars this season. The Stars aren't looking to change who they are to beat Milwaukee and it doesn't seem like they have to based on the last series.

"I think you don't want to change your identity. You want to maintain your identity regardless of your opponent's strengths. But you also have to have a heightened awareness of certain tendencies and strengths of your opposition in order to let your identity shine through."

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

One thing that will change for Texas is the look of their defense. Lian Bichsel will be assigned back to Texas, as first reported here yesterday, and immediately factor into the rotation. An ATO player such as Kyle Looft will have to come out to make room. That being said, Looft, Luke Krys, Cody Haiskanen (currently injured) and other tryout players on defense have really availed themselves well of the opportunity. As the Dallas Stars are experiencing now, there is never a downside to having too many high quality blue line options in the playoffs.

"I thought Looft did a great job. I thought Krys did a great job. When you talk about ATOs coming in, those are big moments for them. Fortunately, you look at Krys, .. he had 12 regular season games, Looft only had two and then next thing you know he plays two playoff games, so you got to give him a lot of credit. He did a real good job."

It must be said that Milwaukee was the team that bounced Texas out of the playoffs last season in division finals. 2022-23 felt like the year of destiny for the Texas Stars, and many of those players are still here. Asked about whether that crosses their mind, Graham was prototypically coach-like in his answer:

"I'm thinking about tomorrow."

Tomorrow, of course, brings Game 1 against Milwaukee here in Cedar Park at 7 PM.