The Texas Stars (1-1-0-0, 2 pts, #4 Western Conference) split their opening weekend of the AHL season. Coach Willie Desjardins and the defending South Division champs raised their banner before a win on Saturday and then dropped a close game on Sunday. The club will now take an inexplicable eight day break before returning to action in Oklahoma City on Tuesday.
Travis Morin was the story of the weekend on the positive side. The veteran center collected a total of six points (3 goals and 3 assists) in two games on the weekend with a plus-4 rating.
Coach Desjardins heaped praise on his #1 center after his franchise record tying four point effort on Saturday. "Morin was the difference tonight. He worked hard. It wasn't just the plays he made; he battled in the corners and won 1-on-1s against really big guys."
Morin lined up between rookie Curtis McKenzie and fellow vet Colton Sceviour, who also had a goal and an assist. McKenzie scored his first professional goal in Sunday's game, a nice power play effort down low at the goal line, assisted by Morin and Matej Stransky.
The Stars' second line (Mike Hedden - Justin Dowling - Brett Ritchie) had some struggles on the weekend, not getting rewarded for some solid work and at other times seeming to be a little out of sorts. Mike Hedden potted his first of the season in the second game, tying up the game at three all and injecting some energy into the crowd. Ritchie picked up an assist on a strong 'crash the net' play.
"Things weren't going our way so we started getting into the dirty areas," said Mike Hedden. "Ritchie had a great chance and couldn't find the net. I just got lucky, and the puck was sitting there. I just poked it into the empty net."
Beyond the first two lines, however, scoring was limited. Other than Matej Stransky, who scored two assists on the power play, no one outside the top six had a point on the weekend.
"Morin's line carried us quite a bit," acknowledged Desjardins. "We have to become a little deeper. We have to get more help from other lines."
The bottom six looked like this for both games this weekend:
Most likely on first glance would be Stransky. He had some fits and starts though. At one point during a second period power play on Sunday, Stransky put the team offside on two consecutive zone entries. I'll leave it to you to decide how major that is, but in a one goal game, it didn't help.
Austin Smith, currently injured, would likely replace Vause or Petersen on the third line when healthy, which should be soon. That could inject scoring punch. Taylor Peters seems to have a solid shot on the fourth line, and Wathier is always reliable for a few points here and there, even in a lessened role.
Desjardins looks to be treating the next week as a second training camp with the benefit of game experience.
Oleksiak not dominant on defense
As an initial disclaimer, it's been two whole games. However, the Stars are expecting Jamie Oleksiak to be a dominant "24-25 minute" player in the American League. That did not show in this first weekend of hockey. His plus-2 masks the issue on the scoresheet, but the eyeball test wasn't good for the second-year blue liner. After a stellar pre-season, more needs to be seen out of him. He's the first call to Dallas and a 6'7 AHL All-star defenseman; he needs to show that.
After a deflating 30 minutes, one wonders if a player like Luke Gazdic was missed in the locker room after the second period on Sunday. Gazdic was known for getting in players' faces when things weren't going right, even when he was injured last season. That vet 'voice in the room' might be a missing piece for this squad right now as most of the other leaders are more 'lead by example' types.
On the other hand, Jyrki Jokipakka had a good weekend: two assists in a very even effort from the first-year Finn.
Is the #1 role Jack Campbell's for the taking?
Again, two games in, but Jack Campbell looked great on Saturday night against the Chicago Wolves (St. Louis Blues). The only goal he let in was one deflected off his centerman in front of the net. He stopped Keith Aucoin on a breakaway on a chance he described as 'fun'.
Cristopher Nilstorp, on the other hand, let in four and seemed to be a bit out of position at times. He didn't seem like the same goaltender that Texas saw to end last season and in the playoffs with Milwaukee.
If those trends continue, Desjardins will have his desired #1. Campbell seems ready to take the reins of this team after splitting starts last season. He will no doubt have a challenge in Nilstorp to keep him on his toes, but the leadership appears willing to give him the chance to own this team, if he can take it.
Veterans stole the night for the Texas Stars as Travis Morin was the standout player with a four-point night in a 4-1 victory over the Chicago Wolves tonight in Cedar Park.
"Tonight, we wanted to make a little statement and show the younger guys how Willie wants us to play and how we need to play to be successful," said Morin, who had two goals and two primary assists.
Colton Sceviour opened the scoring, and captain Maxime Fortunus scored one on the power play. Both were assisted by Morin. Jyrki Jokipakka added two secondary assists and Matej Stransky had a secondary power play assist, his first professional point. Morin's four-point effort tied a franchise record for points in a game.
Jack Campbell stopped 18 of 19 shots against. He was untested for long stretches, often a challenge for goalies, but came up big, especially on a breakaway against Keith Aucoin.
Less than 24 hours after scoring four against Chicago, Texas dropped a 4-3 decision to the Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks) Sunday afternoon, giving up a two goal lead in the first period.
"We had a good start, but we got away from our systems," said Travis Morin, who continued his scoring torrent with a goal and an assist. "We weren't playing the way we were supposed to."
After going up by two in the first ten minutes, Texas ceded two goals in the next five to reach a tied score.
"We played well at the start," added Coach Desjardins. "But they capitalized on some mistakes to get themselves going. We didn't work as hard away from the puck as we needed to."
Rockford pushed past Texas with a second period goal, which Texas answered just a minute later off the stick of Mike Hedden. The IceHogs' Mark McNeill put in the ultimate game winner with 90 seconds left in the second period. Rockford was playing very aggressively all night, and it put Texas back on its heels.
"They [activate D on offense] a lot, and it put our defense on their heels," said Desjardins. "Pucks were bouncing, and they didn't want to get caught so that gave [Rockford] speed."
Morin continued, "We knew they were going to jump into the play, especially their D. When they get a turnover, they go. The forwards weren't as high as they should have been, and that gave them some odd man opportunities."
Texas tender Cristopher Nilstorp stopped 20 of 24 against in his first start of the year. Rockford's goalie, Kent Simpson, stopped 41 of 44 and, combined with his performance Saturday night at San Antonio, stopped 90 on the weekend.
The Week Ahead
Texas plays just one game in the next week: at Oklahoma City (Edmonton Oilers) on Tuesday.
Austin Smith is injured for Texas after taking a hit in the second preseason game. By all accounts, he was close last weekend. With eight days off between games, the training staff probably saw an opportunity to guarantee a healthy Smith as opposed to testing him, perhaps unwisely, before he was 100% ready. If he isn't ready for the OKC game, then that's a problem.