The Texas Stars (40-19-5-6, 91 pts, #1 Western Conf.) had a chance this past weekend to sew up their playoff spot all on their own. With three games in three nights including two against the bottom two worst teams in the conference, it seemed pretty inevitable that the Stars would be in this weekend.
They made it by Sunday but certainly could have had a better time of it. They dropped the first two games of the set, both at home, by allowing the game-winning goal with 15 and 25 seconds remaining, respectively. Sunday was kinder as they won 5-1 and sealed up their berth thanks to a Chicago Wolves (Vancouver Canucks) loss.
In other news, the Stars started to sort out their plethora of defensemen. Over the weekend even Joe Morrow and Jamie Oleksiak took a seat so that Coach Desjardins could work everyone into the lineup.
"I can't get them all the ice they deserve," said Desjardins. "They all deserve ice, and I can't do it for them. We have to find out what the new guys can do and then make a decision on the defense."
Decisions were made, and Gord Baldwin was assigned to Idaho to start. Just yesterday, Texas swapped players with the Peoria Rivermen (St. Louis Blues), sending Carl Sneep to the Rivs in exchange for center Brett Sonne. This type of move is allowed after the NHL trade deadline because Sneep is still Dallas property. The two parent clubs simply agreed to loan their players to different teams for the time being. Sneep did not play in any of the three games this weekend.
Sonne, a third round draft pick and fourth year pro, is playoff eligible for the Texas Stars. he has 7-8-15 in 56 games this season for Peoria.
In other news and notes, Brett Ritchie is showing the talent that got him drafted in the second round by Dallas. He scored a goal on his second shift as a pro on Friday and followed up with an assist on Sunday. Watching him play, you can see that he has great offensive talent and size.
However, a few times he was caught coming down too low on defensive coverage, leaving his man at the point wide open. Defense is something that he will have ingrained in him playing in Coach Desjardins' system this spring.
Ritchie took Alex Chiasson's spot on the second line. It will be interesting what Coach Desjardins does with that line when Chiasson returns. For that matter, Reilly Smith took Matt Fraser's spot on the first line and that will be another question to answer when he also returns.
The Stars had a brilliant three minutes to go up 2-0, but the OKC Barons (Edmonton Oilers) used all of the remaining fifty-seven to sneak back into the game and defeat the Stars by a 3-2 final Friday. Brett Ritchie's first professional goal opened the scoring, and Mike Commodore's first as a Star came next. However, two Barons' goals in the last five minutes of the game started Texas' three game weekend with a deflating loss.
"We were ready. The first five minutes of the game we had good tempo," said captain Maxime Fortunus. "We may have stopped moving and putting pucks to the net. Every time you get a chance to put a puck to the net, you have to do it."
The Stars outshot the Barons 13-6 in the first but then capitulated in the second to be outshot 15-6.
"They had a really good second period," said Coach Desjardins. It was the third that killed the Stars though as a goal just as a penalty expired set the score tied at two and a hopeful shot tipped off Jack Campbell's glove and won the game 3-2 with 14.6 seconds left.
"It hurts to lose that one," added Desjardins.
Less than twenty-four hours after losing in the final fifteen seconds against OKC, Texas dropped their second contest of the weekend in near exactly the same fashion. This time, the Stars allowed the go-ahead goal with 24.5 seconds left in the game after the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal Canadiens) had tied it only six minutes before.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," said Travis Morin, who had the Stars only goal. "There were plenty of opportunities for us to score the rest of the game. We couldn't find a way; they did."
Cristopher Nilstorp started his first game back from injury and had a shutout going into the fifty-third minute of the game with Texas leading 1-0.
"We haven't given up the lead in the third for a long time," said Texas coach Willie Desjardins. "We've done it in back to back nights. We can't do that."
The Stars kept their forward lines much the same tonight but scratched three of the seven defenseman they had dressed yesterday in favor of others.
"We could use [chemistry] as an excuse, but it's not that. Other teams are good. We had our chances; we just didn't put it away."
Morin added, "[Hamilton] had nothing to lose, and they played that way."
After dropping their last two games in defeating fashion, the Stars played a solid game against a familiar opponent, beating the Rampage (Florida Panthers) in San Antonio by a 5-1 score. Travis Morin had a goal and an assist, and Kevin Connauton had two primary assists for Texas.
Albeit against lesser competition, the Stars absolutely needed this win. They move to 8-0-1-1 against San Antonio this season.
Texas is the top seed right now for the playoffs and has to hope for a favorable playoff matchup. The first round of the AHL playoffs switched last year to be a best-of-five affair. If you get off to a bad start, you're toast. Also, depending on travel, you could start in your opponent's building to ensure each team gets at least one home game.
In the AHL, 2-2-1-1-1 scheduling is not always possible due to travel. In seven game series, it moves to 2-3-2. In the five game series, it is 2-3, so that the lower seeded team gets home games. Falter on the road, and you could be in a big hole coming home.
The Week Ahead
Texas has a big battle ahead against the #2 team in the South Division and 4th overall seed, the Charlotte Checkers (Carolina Hurricanes). Games at Charlotte on Thursday and Friday could put some space between the Stars and the second place Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs). The Marlies have a worse win percentage than the Stars but are still only two points behind Texas with six games left.
Texas returns to San Antonio on Sunday and Tuesday to play the Rampage at the AT&T Center.
Cristopher Nilstorp returned from injury and played Saturday. Patrick Nemeth is full contact in practice but is still being held out. With the number of defensemen on the roster in Cedar Park, there's no need to rush him.