Last Saturday night was a party in Cedar Park. Texas had flattened the defending champs by a combined score of 9-2 in two games to start what was supposed to be a close, hard-fought series.
Then everyone got on a plane to Michigan.
In Grand Rapids, the home team held serve, beating Texas by a combined score of 8-4. Tomas Jurco had a hat trick in Game 3. Goalie Petr Mrazek stopped 68 of 72. Something clicked for the Griffs and now the series is tied up at two.
The Stars knew it would be a battle, but after two games in central Texas, maybe everyone forgot that the team on the other side of the ice hoisted the Cup last season. You don't get there without fighting through adversity.
Game 5 is the biggest game Texas has played all year. If they can win, they will come home with two chances to win the series. If not, well, they better hope the home team wins every game.
It was the first game in 8 days for the Texas Stars and any concerns about rust were dismissed very quickly. Two goals in the first four minutes of the contest put Texas on a path to a 5-2 final in Game 1 against the defending champions, the Grand Rapids Griffins.
"We had a huge layoff," said Dustin Jeffrey, who scored two goals tonight. "Sometimes you see teams come out rusty, but the way we put pressure on their D put a lot of doubt in their game and generated turnovers."
Jeffrey put on a show, displaying the talent that made him a waiver wire claim by Dallas. His play went beyond the two goals on the score sheet as he created turnovers on the forecheck and played well in the defensive zone as well. It was the best game he's had as a Texas Star.
"He played well tonight," said coach Willie Desjardins. "He capitalized on his chances. We need that line playing well for us, and they had a good game."
Texas scored two off stretch passes on the night, displaying the quickness of their transition game.
Jeffrey added, "If you look at our team all year, we generated a lot of turnovers and our transition game is quick. If you look at the guys we have, that shows the talent we have."
Jack Campbell got the start and stopped 23 of 25 in the contest. He hadn't played in 12 days.
Cristopher Nilstorp got his crack at the Grand Rapids Griffins tonight and put up a goose egg, stopping all 30 shots he faced for his second AHL playoff shutout and first of this postseason. Brendan Ranford and Justin Dowling each had a pair of goals as the home team cruised to a 4-0 victory and a 2-0 series lead over the defending champion Grand Rapids.
"We're a good home team and we feed off the crowd here," said Dowling, who scored his two goals in three minutes in the second period. "Especially at home, we're a quick team. We're used to the ice. We get in on the forecheck and turn over a lot of pucks. When we have puck possession we tend to get a lot of chances and we're bound to put a few in."
Nilstorp didn't have to steal the game; the offense was there. However, it was a solid performance from the Swede in his first game action in ten days.
"Nilstorp was lights-out tonight," said Ranford, who set a Stars record for goals in consecutive playoffs games with his fourth tonight. "[With Campbell,] we have the best one-two punch in the league."
If the home team in this series always has this dominant of a performance, the Stars are fine in the long run. That is little solace to Texas this evening after they dropped a one-sided contest to the Grand Rapids Griffins in their first game in Michigan. Starting goaltender Jack Campbell let up four goals in the contest and gave way to Cristopher Nilstorp in the second period. Tomas Jurco added a hat trick, but it didn't feel like all his offense was needed in the 5-2 contest. Ultimately, the game was decided by the man in net for Grand Rapids. Petr Mrazek had his best game of the series, stopping 35 of 37 shots against him.
The Stars had chances in the game. Matej Stransky beat Mrazek in the first but caught the post. Captain Maxime Fortunus did the same in the second. Then Toby Petersen was robbed by Mrazek with a penalty coming against the Griffins, and Scott Glennie had one waved off due to goaltender interference. The Stars faced some adversity in the OKC series but not like this. The largest deficit Texas had to overcome was two goals.
Showing the importance of getting the last chance, the line of Dustin Jeffrey, Chris Mueller and Scott Glennie was victimized by the lineup of Emmerton-Nestrasil-Pulkkinen. They were a combined minus-10 on the night.
Texas came back to life a bit in the third period, but it was too little too late. Mike Hedden scored his fourth of the postseason and Brendan Ranford extended his goal streak with a tally in his fifth straight.
Looking to rebound from last night's three-goal loss, Texas scored first tonight but couldn't hold on to win. The final was a tight 3-2 tally. David McIntyre's second period goal was a huge momentum shifter, and it was initially waved off by the referees. After further consideration, the officials called it a good goal, putting Grand Rapids up 2-1. The replay showed that the puck had been played with a high stick and the initial no-goal call appeared correct.
Cristopher Nilstorp stopped 22 of 25 shots in the game, suffering his first loss of the playoffs.
The Week Ahead
Game 5 is on Friday at Grand Rapids. Game 6 is back in Cedar Park on Sunday. If necessary, Game 7 will be Monday.