It's playoff time once again in Cedar Park.
"It's the best time of year," said captain Maxime Fortunus. "I was telling Tyler Sloan that the other day, 'We might want to put on some Christmas songs because it's the best time of the year.'"
The Stars are facing a tough battle in the first round thanks to a few competing factors. First of all, as previously mentioned and expanded on, the first round will feature a best-of-five series played in a 2-3 format, which Texas will start on the road on Friday night in Milwaukee.
"I think we should be confident," said Texas Stars' assistant coach Doug Lidster. "It's going to be tight. I'm not sure home and away is going to matter as much. It's still 200 by 85 feet. The game is played the same way."
The Stars do have the best league's best record on the road, claiming 54 of a possible 76 points for a .711 points percentage.
Of course, another factor is the hot streak that their opponents, the Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators), are on. Tied up in a dogfight for the final playoff spot since March, the 'Ads' went 15-4-1 in their last twenty games. A lot of their success came on the back of rookie goaltender Magnus Hellberg, who went 18-7 since February 1. He also had six shutouts in that timespan.
That goaltending plays well into the Admirals' overall gameplan. They are a team that hasn't changed a lot since the Stars' last played them in the playoffs.
"All the way back to our first year when we played against them, the guys may change, but the way they play is the same," said forward Colton Sceviour. "They're structured and good in their own end. It's going to be a hard-fought grinding series. I predict a grinding series. You might not score your first goal until the last five minutes but it might be all you need."
The final wrinkle in the series is the end of the NHL season. It looks like Dallas and Nashville will be among those headed to the tees on April 28th. That means NHL players will be sent down on Sunday and could have a major impact on the remainder of the series. Texas will get Jordie Benn, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser and Alex Chiasson, when healthy. Milwaukee will get a boatload as well, potentially six from recall and one interesting draft pick addition, Filip Forsberg.
The six on normal recall are Taylor Beck, Chris Mueller and Victor Bartley. Emergency recall players are Kevin Henderson, Daniel Bang and Austin Watson. All were important contributors to the club this season and many of those could add offensive punch just like Texas's additions. The X factor could be Forsberg. While he hasn't broken out quite yet in the NHL, he could open a can in the AHL and send the Stars packing. Then again, he is a boy among men at the AHL and NHL level. It's a total unknown, and it's something to watch for.
One final question is between the pipes. Jack Campbell and Cristopher Nilstorp have identical 19-13-3 records and save percentages separated by two thousandths of a point. Coach Desjardins has not made his decision yet.
In the last regular season game between the two, Texas and Houston (Minnesota Wild) had a classic back and forth battle with the Aeros finishing on top 4-3 in regulation.
"We knew they were going to come out strong," said captain Maxime Fortunus. "It was a game they really needed. We always have good games against Houston."
Fortunus was alluding to Houston's need to clinch their playoff berth, which they did with the victory over the Stars Friday. Texas only lost by one but never held the lead in the game, constantly battling back from one goal deficits to tie the contest.
"Once you get back, you have to keep it," said Coach Desjardins. "We turned it over a couple of times. I don't think we had enough desperation in our game. We thought it was just going to happen. It doesn't just happen; you have to work for it."
Texas got goals from Justin Dowling, Joe Morrow and Francis Wathier.
There's just something about the matchup between the Stars and IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks) that turns every game into a high scoring, come from behind affair. Saturday was no different as the Stars gave up a 3-0 lead to fall 5-3 in their regular season finale. Amazingly, it was the fourth straight game in the season series between the two where the home team dropped a three goal lead to lose.
"We just didn't play well enough," said Coach Desjardins. "[Rockford] played with desperation. We have to defend better; we gave them too many chances, and that's not what we do."
The game had a combined 101 shots, 54 of those coming off the sticks of Rockford skaters.
"You can't give up  shots at home," said Luke Gazdic, who scored his fourth of the season in the game. "We need to talk in the zone and have communication. They just worked us."
Texas didn't clear out in front of Cristopher Nilstorp, who faced a season high in shots. The number of quality chances Texas was able to generate compared to the IceHogs was part of the issue.
"We didn't put up much on [Kent] Simpson for quality chances," said Desjardins. "We had a few late but not until they got up on us."
Despite the loss, Texas did clinch the top seed in the West today with a Toronto loss. Veteran Francis Wathier added, "We can't perform like we did tonight in the playoffs. We'll be out in three games."
Texas's goals came from Kevin Connauton, Scott Glennie and Luke Gazdic.
Game 1 - Fri., Apr. 26 - Texas at Milwaukee, 7:00
Game 2 - Sat., Apr. 27 - Texas at Milwaukee, 7:00
Game 3 - Wed., May 1 - Milwaukee at Texas, 7:30
*Game 4 - Fri., May 3 - Milwaukee at Texas, 7:30
*Game 5 - Sat., May 4 - Milwaukee at Texas, 7:00
* - if necessary
Prospects in the Pipe
Texas added John Klingberg this week to an already crowded blueline. Additionally, Emil Molin and Troy Vance are in Cedar Park working out with JJ McQueen off ice and getting to spend some time around the organization.
Patrick Nemeth returned for a single game this past week. He was re-injured in the second period of the game against Houston and did not play the third period or Saturday's game. Brett Ritchie is also out with an unspecified injury.