It was the best regular season the Texas Stars had enjoyed in the franchise's four seasons in Cedar Park and expectations were high as the team entered the postseason. After the disaster that was the 2011-2012 season, just getting to the playoffs should have been considered a massive success but this was a team that was expected to once again make a run at the Calder Cup, with AHL Coach of the Year Willie Desjardins behind the bench an SEL champion goaltender in net.
The season ended unceremoniously on Thursday night with a 5-1 loss to the Oklahoma City Barons, a a 4-1 series loss. In the final three games of the series, all played in OKC, the Stars were outscored 16-4 and completely outplayed in nearly every aspect of the game in the third period in each contest.
On Wednesday, a 3-2 lead headed into the third period fell apart as the Barons scored five goals in a 7-3 rout. It could be said the season was the moment Fedun scored to give the Barons the lead, because after that goal the Stars were never the same. The wind left their sails and there was basically no fight left in what turned out to be a rather hapless Game 5 effort on the way to the loss.
Aside from the third period meltdowns of the past few games, the Stars can't be accused of not giving everything they had -- and that's the problem. Desjardins and the Stars threw everything they had at the Barons and were frustrated so much that it appeared the team actually regressed as the series wore on as all confidence and chemistry left the ice.
At the crux of the issue was the play in net by both goaltenders. Yann Danis was nothing short of brilliant, while Cristopher Nilstorp ultimately proved to be mortal. The Barons were a high-scoring team and the Stars needed to do anything possible to keep the score low; Texas allowed just three goals combined in the first two games yet had just one win, with the frustration around that fact showing through as the series progressed.
The Stars were all flash and no finish, with Alex Chiasson, Matt Fraser, Reilly Smith and Brett Ritchie all generating chance after chance against the Barons but were unable to put the puck in the net when it counted the most. On Thursday, the game began to fall apart when Chiasson just missed on a brilliant shot off the rush only to have the Barons skate the puck back down the ice and bury a well-placed shot to go ahead 2-0.
Texas had a strong start on Thursday, outshooting the Barons 12-8 in the first period. Yet Hartikainen scored in the final minutes of the frame and all of the hard work was for naught, as Fedun's goal came less than two minutes into the second period and the Stars never recovered.
The body language on the ice and on the bench was tough to see. As the Stars skated off the ice for the second intermission heads were hanging low and you could see this was a defeated team. Perhaps it all boiled down to Danis outplaying Nilstorp and nothing more, but this was a hockey team that did not resemble the one that had been so successful for the majority of the season.
Back in October, with the Stars still trying to gain their footing in the AHL standings, here were the line combinations and defensive pairings:
Here were the line combos and pairings last night:
Morrow played most of the postseason next to Fortunus but was scratched for Thursday's game.
Now, every team experiences turnover throughout the season and the AHL is home for such changes more than any other. It's expected that the best teams are the ones that can deal with this change the best; the Barons are just as dangerous now as they were five months ago, yet don't have Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz leading the way.
Simply put, Willie Desjardins and the Texas Stars were unable to deal with this change -- for whatever reason -- and the right balance and chemistry needed for the postseason was never found.
Part of this issue hinges around the injury to Travis Morin that kept him out of Game 1; the Stars could never really find offensive balance after his return. The lack of depth at center was woefully apparent in this series, as Chiasson and Glennie were unable to provide the sort of boost that Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel had enjoyed before the lockout.
It's also clear that Desjardin's attempts to spark some sort of offensive output actually had a negative effect, as whatever chemistry the team might have had before was now gone. Credit goes to the Barons and Danis for frustrating the hell out of the Stars, but the Stars were incredibly flat in two of the three games in OKC and especially in that third period on Wednesday.
What is clear is that, even with Gaunce and Connauton added at the end of the season* this is a very young and inexperienced team that was just handily dispatched by a veteran and skilled Barons squad. The Texas Stars have a fine crop of young forwards and defensemen that are just getting their feet wet in the pros but the entire organization must have better success and a better effort than what we witnessed against OKC.
*To go ahead address the question of "how could you have been so praiseworthy of the prospects yet the team fell apart against the Barons?": The answer is simple... I was scouting individuals and not the team. The Barons exposed the Stars all season long and that continued in this series. Desjardins was outcoached and frankly tried to do too much, especially moving Morin to the wing; in the end the individual skills on this team were not enough to overcome the lack of depth at center and an obvious lack of cohesive chemistry when it counted.
This has been an issue for a few years now, but the Stars need veteran leadership in that locker room and they need veterans that can also lead on the ice as well. Francis Wathier and Luke Gazdic are popular and hard working players, but they aren't what this team ultimately needs.
Stephen Meserve also chimes inwith his thoughts on why the Stars fell apart against the Barons:
Texas's best players were not their best players. Matt Fraser didn't have a point in the series and had the egregious turnover in OT of Game 1 to give the Barons the win. Alex Chiasson's only point came on the inconsequential lone goal last night. He struggled with the unexplained transition to center and was minus-8 in the series. The Stars' leading scorer in round 1, Kevin Connauton, had a single assist and was minus-8 in the series as well.
Line shuffling last night was very confusing. Travis Morin, all-time points leader for Texas and all-time assists leader, was moved to the wing to be centered by Toby Petersen. Colton Sceviour dropped to the third line to center Glennie and Reilly Smith. Glennie had been doing well in the defensive center role in the series. While he hadn't recorded any points, coming into last night's game he was one of Texas's few plus players in the series. Also, Sceviour hasn't played center in months. It's not like you forget, but it's not the best time to make a shift and play with new linemates.
Perhaps this is all just part of the growth. We can't look at last season and use that as a barometer for this year's outcome; there was just too much change for such a comparison to be made. Instead, this should be seen a starting point and a place to move forward but the same challenges lie ahead, especially if the Stars are unable to find some suitable AHL veteran help moving forward.
What is very important, however, is that the same culture of success that Jim Nill is charged with instilling in Dallas is also instilled in Cedar Park. The players hanging their heads at the end of last night's game are expected to form the core of the Dallas team in the very near future. While getting to the second round of the postseason is no small feat and should be commended, the expectations in this organization are certainly rising.
Once again, time to look ahead to next year.