This past Friday I had the chance to attend the Texas Stars and Houston Aeros game at the Toyota Center in Houston, giving me the chance to finally get a personal look at several Stars prospects that I have only followed on paper up to this point. It was the first AHL game I had been to in over two years and I was instantly reminded just why I love minor league hockey so much. The fans -- the ones that are there -- are very, very passionate and there's an intimacy with the team and players you just don't get in the NHL and other major sports.
I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts on what I saw from the Texas Stars and in particular several specific prospects on the team. I had my eye on a number of players that are expected to make an impact on the NHL club sometime in the future and was able to jot down some notes as the game progressed.
For those that don't know, the Stars lost a close game 3-1 when the Aeros scored an empty-net goal with under a minute remaining to ice the win. The Stars struck first with a power play goal in the first period, but the Aeros would take the lead in the second period and never relinquish it. It was a fairly entertaining game but a very frustrating loss for the Stars, who put on good pressure in the third but couldn't score when they needed it most.
Some thoughts on the game, the crowd and several prospects after the jump.
Before I get to the game itself and the players, I wanted to comment a bit on the Houston Aeros and the fanbase here.
The Aeros have been in Houston for a long time and have been as successful as you could possibly hope for with a AHL team in Southern Texas. What's remarkable is that the Aeros get front page space with the Houston Chronicle and on the local news. This AHL team, in Houston, is covered more extensively than the Dallas Stars are in the DFW market.
I can't even begin to express how much this frustrates me.
The Aeros play at the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets, and only sell tickets for the lower bowl area for the hockey games. Friday night featured an announced crowd of just over 6,000, much more than I ever expected to show up. The team also has cheerleaders -- CHEERLEADERS -- that walk the isles between periods and then dance during the game. What was also a very nice surprise was the presence of Gordie Howe on this night, there to drop the puck for the ceremonial faceoff.
Now, I've been a visiting fan most likely more times than I've ever actually been a home fan. I'm used to the fiery shenanigans that exists amongst the fans of AHL teams and I find it to be a fairly entertaining part of minor league hockey. It's almost like attending a wrestling match. Yet I found the fans here in Houston to have one thing that really just rubbed me the wrong way: one hell of a classless chant after each home team goal. After each goal the crowd would join in to chat something like: "one deke, two deke, he shoots he scores! Hey, Bachman, YOU SUCK!!!"
Maybe it just reminded me of Nashville fans, but that whole chant just pissed me off. I guess that's just part of minor league hockey, but I've never understood why you would choose to jeer the opposition instead of just cheering on your own team.
Moving onto the game itself.....
Both the Aeros and the Stars play a very similar game. Both teams are very physical and it's apparent that both wanted to rely on -- at least this night -- a grinding, dump-and-chase type game. After the Aeros took a 2-1 lead, the Stars became one hell of a frustrated hockey team. The Aeros played a perfect trap style game with the lead, pressing hard on the forecheck while also maintaining at least four players back in the neutral zone. The Stars did not have the speed or skill to really stretch the ice vertically and were completely unable to win the battles along the boards needed when attempting to secure possession with the dump and chase.
There were several prime opportunities for the Stars in the third period, however, as they were still able to put some decent pressure on the Aeros. Colton Sceviour had the best chance of the game when a shot from the boards rebounded of Hackett and into the slot, but Sceviour was unable to slip it around the sprawled goaltender. On another occasion a booming shot from Severin Blindenbacher nearly went off Hacket's glove and in, yet the goalie made one of the most remarkeable saves I've seen in person when he fell back and caught the puck in midair before it crossed the line.
It was a hard fought game from both sides and the Stars played well; they just didn't have the speed to solve the trap game in third period and were stymied by one hell of a goaltending performance. It happens.
Overall I was amazed at just how similar the AHL club is to the Dallas Stars, as they are one heck of a physical and resilient team and one that is very fun to watch and cheer for. It's easy to see how they've become so popular in Cedar Park with fans, as these guys leave it all out on the ice -- at least in this game they did.
For the game, I had my eye on several specific players, doing my best to track them while they were on the ice while also following the puck. The Stars also mixed up the lines throughout the game, as they were playing with 14 forwards and just five defensemen. Sometimes Sceviour was on the third line with Ondrej Roman and Ray Sawada, other times he was up with Tomas Vincour and Cody Chupp. Brandon Segal also played on several different lines throughout the game as well.
-- Note: Keep in mind these thoughts are based on just one game, so this analysis comes with a big grain of salt. --
This was my first time getting a good look at Colton Sceviour and I came away with mixed feelings. He's a highly skilled player with obvious playmaking abilities and possesses deceptive speed along the left wing. He's also very active on both ends of the ice, which was a bit surprising to see from a player that has been so highly touted as an offensive forward coming up from the juniors. Yet despite his listed size (6-0, 201), he was pushed around fairly easily on the ice. He's a lean, lanky forward and at times looked like Loui Eriksson did about three or four years ago; you could see the skill that's there, he just needs to get stronger on the puck to really take the next step. He made several great, great plays throughout the game, however, and has an uncanny knack for making unexpected passes in tight spaces around the net. He's probably going to be ready to compete for the NHL, if not next season, then at the very least in 2012.
He's going to be a RFA this summer, but I fully expect the Stars to offer him a contract to keep a promising young prospect within the organization.
Two players I was really excited to finally see -- Tomas Vincour and Ondrej Roman -- left me pretty much disappointed overall. The two combined for just three shots in the game and while Vincour is obviously the more polished of the two, both struggled with puck possession throughout the game. Vincour is much, much more physical and very active up and down the ice, while Roman just didn't appear comfortable at all as the game progressed. Roman lost nearly every battle along the boards and just didn't push the puck very well up ice very well at all.
Travis Morin, the late-blooming prospect that has caught the AHL by storm this season, looked great. He's a very confident hockey player and while this wasn't exactly the best game for the Stars' leading scorer, it's very easy to see why he's been so successful this season. He has great vision with the puck and while he was on the ice for both goals against, I was also impressed with just how complete his game was. He's centering the top line with Sean Backman and Greg Rallo and between the three the Stars have one very chippy, skilled and determined line that the Stars can put on the ice in any situation. He's set to be a UFA this summer and it's going to be very interesting to see how the Stars handle a player that is just now producing at a high level.
Philip Larsen didn't have the best game, struggling with the physicality of the Houston Aeros and their tenacious forechecking. He's still very, very confident with the puck and I counted only one bad decision on a pass the entire game. There were times he was flat out knocked down or run over along the boards, only to get right back and head down the ice to help with a scoring the chance the other way. Amazingly, he seemed less inclined to shoot the puck than he has been when playing in the NHL, and I kept waiting to see if he had the ability to take over the game like you would hope from the franchise's top prospect. He had four shots on net, made several great passes but lost some battles in front of the net on defense, one which led directly to the first goal for the Aeros.
As I watched him in person, I couldn't help but think of a defenseman on the Dallas Stars that he reminded me of: Stephane Robidas. They play a very similar game, have similar styles and attitudes on the ice, although Larsen needs to learn how to dish out a hit as well as he can take them first.
Richard Bachman was tremendous and was the only reason the game didn't get out of hand in the second period when the Aeros just laid on the pressure and the Stars began a constant train into the penalty box. He still needs to learn to keep his rebounds under control, but he's a big and confident goaltender that plays a game similar to Marty Turco; he relies a bit too much on his athleticism at times, instead of maintaining good positioning. He's perhaps the forgotten prospect for the Stars as all the focus has shifted to Jack Campbell, but we can't forget that the Stars have a young prospect in goal in the AHL that is going to be pressing for time in the NHL very, very soon.
I went into the game focusing on Morin, Larsen, Vincour, Sceviour and Roman yet it was a young and fiesty player that kept my attention every single time he was on the ice. Michael Neal -- younger brother of James -- was the best player on the ice for the Stars. He was recently recalled from the ECHL and he's obvious motivated to make the most of his time with the Texas Stars. He led the team in shots (5) and was just as physical and tenacious along the boards as he was eager to put the puck on net. He scored the Stars' lone goal on the power play when he charged the net and knocked in a rebound off a shot from the point. He still has another year on his contract with the Stars, so there's no rush to keep him in the AHL, but he's showing that he deserves to stay in Austin as long as possible.
So, overall, I walked away pleased but a bit disappointed. I really look forward to seeing this team again soon, this time in Austin.