The Texas Stars just polished off a first round victory that saw the two clubs combine for just twelve goals in four games. The two goaltenders, Cristopher Nilstorp and Magnus Hellberg, had goals against averages of .96 and 1.69 in the series, both certainly good enough to win most any series. Well, any series except for one between those two teams. Luckily for the Stars, Hellberg's stellar effort fell short, and it's onto the second round for Texas.
It's relevant to bring up goal scoring as we preview the next round thanks to the juxtaposition between the Stars-Ads series and the series that the Oklahoma City Barons just had against the Charlotte Checkers. Texas's series averaged three goals per game combined and had an average win margin of 1.5 goals; OKC's series average 7.6 goals per game and had a win margin of 3.8 goals.
After getting a lot of scoring done in the early season, the Barons lost their big time scorers to the NHL when the lockout ended. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz all departed and the Barons floundered for a while, as their Coach freely admits, while they tried to find a new chemistry. To be honest, most AHL teams had the same feeling out period in January. However, many, including this writer, sort of left the Barons for dead after the lockout ended. I was very wrong to do so. (Todd Nelson was on my ballot for coach of the year, as a result of his work since the lockout ended.)
After a rocky period, the Barons started winning games with scoring by committee and were surely assisted by the play of their goalie, Yann Danis, down the stretch. From March 29th on, Danis started all but two of the Barons' seventeen games as they scraped and clawed their way into playoff contention and an eventual five seed.
The names of the Barons' scorers may have changed, but the number of goals they score always seems to be large. Josh Green, their captain, leads AHL playoff scoring with 3g,6a. Teemu Hartikainen, who spent a good bit of time in Edmonton this year, returned and ranks third with 3g,5a. Also contributing are two players who bubbled up from the ECHL. Toni Rajala is a solid quick winger who started the year in Stockton and Mark Arcobello was picked up two seasons ago and played his way into a contract with Edmonton this season. You can't count out Jonathan Cheechoo either, who has 2g,2a in the playoffs.
Of course, Texas has scoring talent. Matt Fraser, Reilly Smith, Colton Sceviour, Alex Chiasson, Justin Dowling, Brett Ritchie and recently Kevin Connauton are all powerful offensive weapons that the Stars' have in their arsenal.
The problem, of course, is when one team is having an offensively great night and the other isn't. That happened to OKC against the Checkers in Game 4. They blew out the Checkers 8-2. In a five game series, something like that is horrendous because of how much each game means. That's not to say that a seven game series is much more forgiving, but the possibility of just having an off night and getting blown away is such a distinct possibility with the Barons on the other bench, in my opinion.
The good news for the Stars is that the Barons had one of the worst goals against records in the AHL. At 3.00, they were one of only two teams ranked lower than 17th in the league to make the playoffs. The other, the Portland Pirates (Phoenix Coyotes), were knocked out in the first round. Somehow, as a stats anomaly, the Pirates had 3.07 goals against but only 3.03 goals for. OKC, for the record, averaged 3.16 goals for, 3rd best in the league.
Finally, the Stars record against the Barons is ugly this season: 4-7-0-1. The devil's in the details though. Texas was 1-5 against them before the lockout and 3-2-0-1 after.
Keys to the Series
I'm going to put on my TV analyst hat here and try to break down an incredibly complicated series with dozens of competing factors to a few key points. Because, you know, that's what it's all about.
Cristopher Nilstorp was fantastic in the first round. In case you missed the stat I dropped earlier, he's got a 0.96 GAA and a .963 SV%. Those are video game numbers. Yann Danis has a 2.97 GAA and a .913 SV%. Now, that doesn't mean that he's going to be some pushover. Danis always plays Texas very well. In the the season series, he faced Texas seven times and sported a 6-1 record. The sticklers will point out that four of those wins came during the NHL lockout and therefore put their legitimacy into question. I would argue it doesn't matter. If you think you can't beat a goaltender, it can get to you, regardless of the truth of it. Danis, for the record, has only two losses against the Stars in his career. He's 10-2 lifetime.
For Texas though, Nilstorp has to help keep the Stars in these games against the potentially devastating Barons' offense.
Avoiding the 'Texas Relays'
For those not from Austin, Texas Relays are a yearly event at the University of Texas that brings thousands of people to the downtown area as they watch high school, college and university students participate in track events.
Much as many Austinites look to avoid downtown during that weekend (and SXSW and ACL and many others...), the Stars should look to avoid getting into a track meet with the Barons. It is extremely conducive to OKC's game to get into those situations. They can score a lot of goals, and it's not that Texas can't (3.06 goals for per game, 6th in the league). It's that the playoffs are a dangerous place to get into track meets. It is not the Texas Stars' game plan. They are a team based on defense, much like the Calder Cup finals year, but with extra scoring punch. That is their differentiating factor.
Rolling Four Lines (and Solid D-pairings too)
After mixing things up through the end of the season with Fraser, Chiasson and Benn in Dallas, some injuries in Texas and the general mayhem of adding players on PTOs, ATOs and recent draftees, things have settled. After the addition of those players from Dallas, Texas sported the following lineup for both games, minus Travis Morin for game four as he was out with an injury. He's expected back for Game 1.
Coach Desjardins said that he likes to keep a steady lineup once he gets into the playoffs, and it looks like he's found it. In Desjardins' system, the play of the fourth line is just as critical to the teams' success as the play of the first. The teams' ability to roll four lines was a strength all year. It's what helped wear down the Admirals in their series as Milwaukee had to dress two defensemen as forwards in Game 4 to attempt to get a quality fourth line on the ice.
The good news for the quarterfinals is that the fourth line was very effective. While they didn't have any points in the series (barely any points were had by anyone), they were effective in moving the puck up the ice, keeping it out of their zone and getting the change for the first line without the puck ending up in their net. It's a thankless task some nights, but they did it well. (Sidenote: they did combine for 19 shots in the series, so it wasn't all dump and change)
Game 1 - Thursday, May 9th - 7:30p at CPC
Game 2 - Saturday, May 11th - 7:30p at CPC
Game 3 - Monday, May 13th - 7:00p at OKC
Game 4 - Wednesday, May 15th - 7:00p at OKC
Game 5 ** - Thursday, May 16th - 7:00p at OKC
Game 6 ** - Monday, May 20th - 7:30p at CPC
Game 7 ** - Tuesday, May 21st - 7:30p at CPC
** - if necessary
Oddly, the Barons will not have a chance to host a weekend game in the series. That could work in Texas' favor as attendance has been weak in OKC even during the weekend games. There are certainly other advantages to being at home, but the crowd can't be dismissed. The Cox Convention Center holds 13,399 for hockey but only hosted 2,043 and 1,990 fans respectively for Games 1 and 2 of their opening series against Charlotte.
Patrick Nemeth has yet to play in the playoffs. He re-injured himself in his first game back from concussion in late April. Travis Morin was held out of Game 4 after taking a puck to the face in Game 3.
He is expected to return for Game 1. Update: Morin is still in red no-contact jersey as of Wednesday's morning skate.