Despite not playing a game on Sunday, the Texas Stars (42-17-3-5, 92 pts, 1st Western Conference) clinched the first berth into the Calder Cup Playoffs for the fourth season. Sights immediately shifted to the Stars' pursuit of the division and conference title, as if the clinching of a playoff berth were an afterthought to the overall goal of bringing a Calder Cup to Cedar Park.
Texas is on pace to set a franchise high for points in a season at 104. It would be the first time the team has crossed the 100-point barrier. The closest they've ever gotten was 99 points in the first season, which was four games longer. The Stars are in serious contention for the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy, which is the AHL's equivalent of the President's Trophy in the NHL, awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season.
Texas is down to magic number of six for the division clinch. They lead the second place Abbotsford Heat (Calgary Flames) by 15 points. The conference crown is a little more complicated as the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings) are just four point behind Texas with a game in hand. That's going to be a slug fest played out by proxy, as mentioned last week.
The Stars want to guarantee home ice throughout the playoffs given how good they are at home this season (25-7-0-1). They will continue a home stand here with four more games at home before the final three road games of the year in early April. Texas won't get on a plane again to travel until the playoffs though, with OKC and San Antonio being the trips.
Patrik Nemeth stepping up on offense, leading in plus/minus
Despite an injury that kept him out of the lineup for January and February, Patrik Nemeth is really stepping up for the Stars. He leads the team in plus/minus at plus-17. The closest Stars behind him are Travis Morin and Cameron Gaunce. Nemeth was on the ice for all four Stars' goals in last night's game against Hamilton and picked up an assist. He has two goals, two assists and plus-11 in the month of March.
Coach Willie Desjardins and Nemeth himself are both rather coy about whether it is a concerted effort to get more offensive chances for the second-year defenseman. "You always want to contribute offensively and get the pucks there," recites Nemeth. However, it's clear based on how he is playing that a slightly higher premium is being placed on offense. Perhaps a pairing with Derek Meech is helping the overall confidence of the Swede.
The Stars got out to an early lead but would need a pair of goals in the third to win last Wednesday in Des Moines against the Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild) after giving up the lead in the second. The rookies activated again as Brendan Ranford scored two goals and Brett Ritchie picked up the game winner. Kevin Henderson continued his excellent play since coming over from Milwaukee with his third goal and fifth point in three games.
Jack Campbell allowed two goals, which actually raised his goals against.
It wasn't pretty, but two points is two points. After overcoming three separate one-goal deficits, Texas finally got the lead for good on Scott Glennie's overtime winner.
"I don't think that was one of our better games," said Glennie. "But I think we battled hard. It was playoff hockey tonight. It's good to know we can come back in the third and get wins like that because we're going to have to do that come playoff time."
"They had a lot of guys out tonight," said Desjardins. "You have to commend them on how hard they worked. I think we were feeling the effects of coming off the road. We were tired."
The power play was what kept Texas in it through out the game. The Stars went 2-for-4 on the night on goals from Glennie and Dustin Jeffrey. That combo also put together the game-winning goal in overtime.
The playoff atmosphere of the game extended through the crowd and onto the ice, according to Brett Ritchie, who notched the game-tying goal in the third.
"There were a few turnovers, but other than that, it was very tight. It was very intense."
Cristopher Nilstorp got the start and stopped 34 of 37 against.
For the second night in a row, it felt like playoff hockey in Cedar Park for the Texas Stars. Once again, it was the Stars walking away with two points, thanks to two goals each from centermen Justin Dowling and Travis Morin.
"It was a tough game all the way along," said Desjardins. "We played hard and Oklahoma City played hard as well. It could have gone either way."
After going down by two in the first period, the Stars battled back in the second period to end forty tied at two a piece.
"We have a lot of scoring power on the team," said Justin Dowling. "We're always confident we can come back no matter what the score. We treat each period the same."
Dowling was that scoring power in the third period as his pair of goals to push Texas ahead 3-2 and 4-3 were huge. Coach Desjardins commented on the scoring balance the team enjoys. After Jeffrey and Glennie keyed the offense last night, Morin and Dowling made the difference tonight.
"It's nice to have. I think you need more bounces as you go towards the playoffs. It takes guys off keying on Morin's line. Now they're looking at all the lines. You need those guys to be successful."
One aspect of the game that certainly screamed playoffs was the physicality of the game. The two teams combined for 38 minutes of penalties solely in minors. Many were of the matching variety. As the third period rolled on, OKC took four straight minors late in the frame. Dowling capitalized just after the final power play expired.
"The power play that we have, the more time we have the more chances we'll generate," he said. "Give us too many chances, the puck is eventually going to find the back of the net. On my goal, they were stuck out there for a while, and they were in scramble mode."
Most of Texas' physical penalties were matching minors, which Coach Desjardins felt showed good discipline out of his club tonight.
Campbell improved to 10-1-0 on the season with the win. It was the first time he allowed more than two goals this season. The second-year goalie also took a minor in the second for roughing.
Having just secured their playoff spot, the Texas Stars did not rest on their laurels as they smashed the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal Canadiens) Tuesday night in Cedar Park by a 4-0 mark. Justin Dowling continued his hot streak with two more goals in the game to add to two in Saturday's contest.
"I'm just starting to get a couple lucky breaks," said the second-year Star who has now found the net nine times on the season.
Linemate Brett Ritchie had two assists in the game and added, "Everybody's a bit streaky. You knew he was going to break out at some point. As long as one of us is putting it in, it doesn't matter."
Texas controlled the play throughout but did not open the scoring until the second period. The Morin line was held scoreless in the contest, but every other line tallied a goal. Scott Glennie and Taylor Peters were the goal scorers.
"[That depth] makes a big difference," said Desjardins. "In the playoffs, they'll match their big D up to shut down your one line. It helps going into the playoffs to have more than one line."
The Stars pushed their point total to 92, tying them for first place in the league with Manchester. The win was their sixth in a row, tying a franchise record set earlier this season. Cristopher Nilstorp pitched a relaxed 20-save shutout, helping Texas stay in it with some big saves in the first.
Stars Add ATO Derek Hulak
Reports (and now the player himself) indicate that the Texas Stars have added F Derek Hulak to their roster on an amateur tryout. He just finished his collegiate career with the University of Saskatchewan. He was named the University Cup MVP but his team lost in the finals. He has not officially been announced as signed yet or joined the team in Texas.
The Week Ahead
Texas completes the suspended game against the San Antonio Rampage (Florida Panthers) on Thursday. Saturday will see them face off against Hamilton again to close their season series. They will not play again until next Friday, which will be Mike Modano night in Cedar Park.
Toby Petersen is the only injured Star right now. Still out a few more weeks.