A full 365 days ago, the troubling 2011-12 season came to an end for the Texas Stars. They missed the playoffs for the first time in their history. They didn't really have a team direction. Their systems were all over the place. The coaching staff was let go.
Fast forward to this week and Texas Stars head coach Willie Desjardins has just been named the Louis A.R. Pieri Award winner for 2012-13; he's the AHL's coach of year.
For league observers, it really isn't surprising. The most obvious part of the puzzle is that Texas went from worst to first in the West. Next, take a look at this roster. The Stars had an abundance of rookies and a massive amount of roster flux between the end of the lockout and the trade deadline. Somehow, they are still having success.
The Daily Report shows you more. When Texas leads after two, they flat lock it down. They have a 30-2-0-1 record in that situation and those two regulation losses didn't come until two weekends ago, the first two games with all the new players from the trade deadline. The Stars got back on track after that with seven of eight possible points in their next four games.
Finally, you can see it on the ice and in postgame interviews. This club has bought in 100% to Desjardins' methodology. Last year, no one was ever on the same page about the systems that they were playing. This year, there has been no doubt.
There was a little bit of friction at the beginning of the season as they learned and grew, but once they all got on the same page, it was obvious. Texas rocketed from a bumpy .500 start to 16-11-3-2 at the New Year. Even after roster turnover due to the NHL lockout, Desjardins' club won 10 of 12 in January and collected a point in one of those losses. Texas surged to first place and hasn't relinquished it since.
New players coming in see that the system works and buy in immediately. How else would you be able to overcome the big changes that Texas endured two weeks ago? Desjardins took it in stride, commenting that it would be easy to blame the two losses on that. He refused to take that easy route.
This is a scary club for opponents to play. They have been circled on everyone's calendar as a 'big' game since December, for sure. And still, they have a 21-16-5-1 record when allowing the first goal. They barely ever give up the lead when they do get it. They can play defense when it's called for, winning 1-0 or 2-1. They can beat you with goals, too, winning 7-6 or 8-2.
Whatever is called for, Coach Desjardins has been able to bring it out in his club. For that, he is the AHL's Coach of the Year. It is a well-deserved honor.
(On a side note, take a look at the previous winners of the Pieri Award. You know a lot of those names. Those names immediately come up the next summer for coaching vacancies. The Stars head coach could be tempted by an NHL bench sooner rather than later. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
This is an article I wrote earlier in the week on the peculiar format the AHL's first round uses. That has some pretty rough potential effects on the home team, which Texas is guaranteed to be. Give a read to understand why home ice may not actually be an advantage in the first round.
Transactions and Clinching
The Texas Stars are just one point from clinching the Western Conference's top seed. If they are able to do that with a win or Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs) loss on Friday, I would expect some vets to be rested on Saturday night. That could mean that new additions Jyrki Jokipakka and Radek Faksa get into the lineup for some meaningful minutes before going back to the black aces squad.
Note that Texas just needs one point in their next two games or for Toronto not to win out to clinch #1 in the West.
Turnovers seemed to be the story of the game Thursday as the Charlotte Checkers (Carolina Hurricanes) captured two points in a tight game with the Stars in North Carolina. The Stars ceded the early lead but stormed back to lead 2-1. The score was tied at two and three subsequently, but Charlotte took advantage of a late game power play to score the game winner.
The Stars also had a chance to score the game winner late on the power play but were stymied repeatedly by Rob Madore, who is giving Texas fits this season. Madore saw 47 shots tonight from Texas and stopped 44 of them.
Texas got goals from Colton Sceviour, Brett Ritchie and Cameron Gaunce.
Texas and Charlotte needed overtime to settle the final game of their season series but not much of it. Just nine seconds into the extra frame, Kevin Connauton scored the game winner for the Stars, ending a back and forth game between the top two clubs in the division.
Colton Sceviour and Brett Ritchie had goals in the game for the Stars, who appeared poised for a regulation win leading 2-1 late in the third. Charlotte scored on a late power play to give themselves at least one point.
Rob Madore was spectacular again for the Checkers. In three games against the Stars, he posted 130 saves on 137 shots, a .949 save percentage.
The Stars needed two points any way they could get them to clinch the South Division this afternoon in San Antonio. They got those two points with authority as Texas defeated the Rampage (Florida Panthers) 8-2.
Six different Stars had multipoint games. Mike Hedden, who scored the game winner in the first, had three points. Justin Dowling had two goals and an assist. Scott Glennie, inserted in place of late scratch Brett Ritchie on the line with Dowling and Hedden, had a goal and two assists. Relative newcomer Cameron Gaunce had four assists and was plus-5.
With the eight goals, Texas tied their franchise record for most goals in a game and set their season record at five for margin of victory. Jack Campbell was relatively untested, seeing just 18 shots in the game.
Goals in the game came from Reilly Smith, Colton Sceviour, Mike Hedden (2), Travis Morin, Scott Glennie and Justin Dowling (2).
Texas showed why they are leading the West with their comeback performance in San Antonio Tuesday night. After allowing the first goal and trailing 2-1 late in the third, the Stars scored a power play goal off the stick of Travis Morin and persevered through overtime and the shootout to win in the skills competition.
The story of the game was the play of San Antonio goalie Dov Grumet-Morris. Texas put a total of 50 shots on the Rampage net. However, Grumet-Morris, the same Rampage tender who was pulled in Sunday's game after ceding five goals on seventeen shots, would not give in. He earned first star honors stopping 48 of those 50.
Brett Sonne scored his first as a Star. Colton Sceviour and Justin Dowling scored in the shootout while Cristopher Nilstorp stopped 13 of 15 in regulation and OT and 4 of 5 in the shootout.
Right now, it's very up in the air as to who the Stars play in the first round. Four teams are in the running though: Oklahoma City (Edmonton Oilers), Rockford (Chicago Blackhawks), Milwaukee (Nashville Predators) and Chicago (Vancouver Canucks).
The Stars would probably prefer Rockford or Milwaukee to Chicago or OKC based on their lethality and record against those clubs this season (combined 4-0-0-1 compared to combined 5-10-0-1).
The Week Ahead
Texas has two games remaining in its regular season schedule, both at home. On Friday, Texas welcomes the Houston Aeros for the final time, potentially ever. The Aeros figure to be a challenging battle as Josh Harding and Matt Dumba will both be in the lineup for the club. The Rockford IceHogs are the final game of the season for Texas on Saturday. They could be a potential first round matchup depending on what happens this week.
Patrick Nemeth has still yet to play a game since mid-February.