Andrew Raycroft tracks the puck in Saturday's game versus Houston (Credit: Portraits by Deena)
For the Texas Stars (20-18-1-2, 43 pts, #10 Western Conference), it was a really good week. The Stars assembled just their second three game win streak of the season in defeating the Chicago Wolves (Vancouver Canucks), Peoria Rivermen (St. Louis Blues) and Houston Aeros (Minnesota Wild). Overall, they are 6-2-1-1 in their last ten, which is arguably their best ten game stretch of the season.
Their record has been aided by several big factors. The first game changer was the arrival of Andrew Raycroft. In addition to his 6-2-1 record, 2.41 GAA and .914 SV%, he is a calming influence in the locker room. "He's great in the locker room," said Coach Pyle after the team's 6-2 win over Peoria. "When he says stuff in the locker room, which he does, guys listen. He adds energy and experience, and he's been great since he's been here."
Another big impact over the last ten games has been the play of the Sceviour-Glennie-Wathier line, which I have previously discussed in this space. Over the last ten, they are a combined 10-21-31 with a plus-13 rating. While Matt Fraser was surely deserving of a callup, any of those three could have just as easily gotten the call with their recent play.
Finally, off the Dallas fans' radar, several AHL contracted players have been lighting it up this week. Stephen Schultz, a Colorado College product and curly haired forward, blew up this week with three goals in the three games. Power play time has helped and Coach Pyle speaks highly of him. "Schultz is a sniper. I need a righty out there to fit the chemistry of the power play. He finds a way to get chances." Mike Hedden is the other player on a tear, getting two goal and two assists in three games, including a shorthanded tally.
More inside on this week's games and some thoughts on newcomer Angelo Esposito...
Texas finished off their four game road trip with a 2-2 split thanks to a three goal second period in Chicago on Wednesday. A two-for-two power play effort and near flawless PK sent the Stars to a "W" before 3,032 fans at the Allstate Arena. Jordie Benn extended his scoring lead among defenseman with his eighth of the year as Fraser did the same among all players with his 21st. Andrew Raycroft had 23 saves on 26 shots.
Aside from a brief sixty second lapse in the second period, the Texas Stars played one of the most complete team games of the season on Friday in defeating the Peoria Rivermen 6-2 in Cedar Park. "After the road trip, we were worried about being flat," said Coach Pyle. "[Raycroft] made huges saves. [We got] big goals, and the power play and penalty kill were good again."
Texas went 2/5 on power play and had a clean sheet of 0/4 on the penalty kill. AHL All-Star Matt Fraser chipped in four assists and Stephen Schultz had two goals, both on the power play. Andrew Raycroft came up big with a calm cool and collected 21 save performance in net.
Texas had a bit of a scare in the second as Peoria evened things at two with quick goals. "Lately this team has found a way to battle through those situations. It was a real character builder." Goals from Glennie, Hedden, Schultz and Ryan Garbutt set the final at 6-2. Maxime Fortunus also scored in the first.
Thanks to a determined third period effort and some silky smooth shootout moves, Texas went two games above .500 for the first time this season with a shootout win over Houston on Saturday. Stephen Schultz, Mike Hedden and Colton Sceviour got regulation goals and Andrew Raycroft had 22 saves.
The sellout crowd saw Texas climb back from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 to even things at three after 60. A scoreless overtime gave way to a shootout, where Texas had not won yet on the season. This time was different as Colton Sceviour, Mike Hedden and Ryan Garbutt all score while Raycroft stopped 3 of 5 shooters for the win.
"In the shootout, I'm kind of blind," said Raycroft, who stopped three of five shooters. "I don't know who these players are, so I'm just going out there to try and get in the way."
Thoughts on Esposito
Having now seen Angelo Esposito in action in person for Texas, it is clear that there is some skill there. He had several great scoring chances on the weekend, but didn't finish any of them. He drew a few penalties on the weekend as well, which shows that he is battling for puck control and making defenders do things they'd rather not to stop him. There is a reason he was drafted in the first round, but there's also a reason he's been a part of five organizations since the draft. The case is still open on Esposito, but early signs point to a decent third line player for Texas. He shifted with Ryan Garbutt and Stephen Schultz.
The AHL All-Star game will be broadcast live on FOX Sports Southwest Plus at 6:00 PM CST on Monday the 30th. Watch Stars' prospect Matt Fraser and some of the best of the AHL skate around in the most glorified game of shinny you've ever seen (but boy is it fun to watch). Full roster here.
The Week Ahead
Texas has a long layoff this week before getting into action on the road this weekend. Friday night's game takes them to San Antonio for yet another game against the Rampage (Florida Panthers). They will follow-up with a game at the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oilers) on Saturday to send them into the All-Star Break.
Texas is still missing Mathieu Tousignant, who has not played since December 18th with an upper body injury. Raymond Sawada got into one game last week against Grand Rapids, but immediately came out after getting hit hard in the game. He has not played since, and there is no timetable for his return.
Finally, as he tweeted himself on Sunday morning, Brad Lukowich was hit high with a slapshot during Saturday's game against Houston. He did not finish the game and was taken to the hospital for X-rays. He spent the night in the ICU with a bruised lung. No word on whether he will be ready to play on Friday.