The Texas Stars (33-16-3-4, 73 pts, #1 Western Conference) are in first place in the West and a handful of rookies have really helped them in getting there.
You've surely heard of the exploits of Curtis McKenzie this season. He came a bit out of nowhere and leads all rookie scoring in the league with 19 goals and 33 assists. Not bad for a sixth round pick. Add to that Brett Ritchie, who has scored six goals in his last nine games and totals 14 goals and 18 assists on the season himself.
"They don't seem like rookies anymore," said Coach Desjardins of McKenzie and Ritchie. "They've been with us for a long time. They both go to the net well and that's how we scored [Friday]. They were at the net and the pucks were at the net. They may not be the prettiest but they count."
Both rookies started their AHL careers on amateur tryouts last season in Cedar Park, a valuable experience according to Brett Ritchie.
"At the start of the season, if I hadn't done that there would have been more of a feeling out process. That experience helped to start."
Coach Desjardins added, "It makes a big difference because you know what the league is about. They both stepped in right away to be regular players."
You can also add to the mix a new line that Coach Desjardins has created of all rookies. Two of them are on Dallas contracts: center Taylor Peters and winger Matej Stransky. The third is on AHL contract to Texas: Brendan Ranford.
Coach Desjardins talked about the combo, which has played together for three straight games now, on Friday night: "All three played really well. It's nice when I can play them in any situation. I was able to play them against the other team's top lines and late in games. When I'm able to do that, it makes our team better."
To boot, Ranford and Stransky had clutch goals in Saturday's shootout in the sixth and seventh round to tie and win the contest, respectively.
Don't get me wrong. These players are still rookies. They're rough around the edges and sometimes they make bad mistakes that you wouldn't expect to see from seasoned players. However, the risk-reward balance is clear. They represent real talent in the organization and its future.
It's almost like this is how it's supposed to work...
Through five seasons, the Stars had a losing record at the Copps Coliseum. In their first game against the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal Canadiens) with the arena bearing the new name of FirstOntario Centre, they got the win but needed overtime for Chris Mueller to blast the puck past Dustin Tokarski for the 3-2 win. It was Mueller's third point of the game after he had the primary assist on Texas's other two goals in the game, both second period power play tallies. Texas ended the first period down 2-0 and then roared back to score three unanswered and win.
Cristopher Nilstorp got the start and stopped 25 of 27. The Stars put 43 on Hamilton's Tokarski.
The Stars needed overtime to decide another contest but Sunday night ended up on the wrong side of the final score with a 5-4 loss against the Rochester Americans (Buffalo Sabres). Texas earned a 3-0 lead in the first period only to relinquish that lead and a 4-3 lead en route to the eventual one-goal OT loss. Cameron Gaunce and Matej Stransky each had a goal and an assist. Josh Robinson stopped 28 of 33.
Up 1-0 after forty, Texas allowed three goals in the final period to fall 4-1 to the Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs) at the Air Canada Centre Monday afternoon. Two of those goals were empty netters, but it was still not the result Texas was hoping for in Ontario. The Stars' only goal came in the second period off the stick of Brett Ritchie.
Rookie goal scoring led the way Friday night for the Texas Stars as Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie both tallied in a 4-1 win over the Charlotte Checkers (Carolina Hurricanes). Ritchie potted two while McKenzie added a single. Mike Hedden rounded out the Stars' scoring with his 19th of the year.
Dressed in specialty black and pink jerseys for breast cancer awareness, Texas jumped out to a three goal lead in the first period and made that lead stick with solid goaltending throughout the contest. Cristopher Nilstorp got the start and stopped 36 of 37.
"We kept them to the outside," Nilstorp added. "They were good shots to get as a goalie."
Texas polished off their weekend with a tight shootout win over the Charlotte Checkers, needing a comeback effort to get that far after a major penalty power play yielded a goal for the visitors.
"That was probably one of our best games of the year," said Coach Desjardins. "It was close all the way through."
The Stars played their best game of the year in front of a capacity crowd of 6,863, the team's second sellout of the season.
After trading goals in the second period, the contest turned on a scrum at the Charlotte net with 15 seconds left in the middle frame.
"It was just an intense shift with both teams battling," said Colton Sceviour, who scored his 31st of the year in the game. "It boiled over into pushing and shoving and the refs saw something that we did that warranted that call."
That call, a slew foot on Cameron Gaunce, put Texas on a five minute major penalty kill and endede Gaunce's night. The veteran defenseman will also be suspended pending review of the play by the League office.
"As much as we may have disagreed with it, all we could do was try and kill it."
Charlotte was able to score their second goal of the game with just 24 seconds left in the penalty. The Stars needed a comeback and found it on the power play themselves off the stick of Chris Mueller.
The game continued tied until overtime, where rookies Brendan Ranford and Matej Stransky scored in the sixth and seventh round to ensure the Texas win.
"We're not a team that's done well in shootouts this year. Our goaltending is superb and our goal scoring is lacking shootouts. To have Ranford score a big one to keep it going and Stransky up next to score and win it was huge for our team."
Cristopher Nilstorp was bombarded all game and came up solid, stopping 34 of 36 in regulation and overtime and four of seven in the shootout.
Despite it being a matchup between the first and last place teams in the Western Conference, the Lake Erie Monsters (Colorado Avalanche) gave Texas a run for its money at Quicken Loans Arena Tuesday morning with the Stars coming out on the right side of a tight 2-1 score. The league's leading power play did the job, getting two on the day. Both units scored with the tallies coming from Mike Hedden and Curtis McKenzie.
Cristopher Nilstorp stopped 32 of 33. The Stars had a perfect 6-for-6 performance on the penalty kill. The Stars improved their record in matinee games to 5-6-1-1 on the season.
The Week Ahead
Texas plays Lake Erie again this evening in Cleveland. They will stay 'on the road' with a trip to the San Antonio Rampage on Saturday night. They will polish off the week with two games against their divisional rival Abbotsford Heat in British Columbia on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Cameron Gaunce was suspended for the slew foot in Saturday's game. It was just a one game suspension but marked the Stars' first league suspension in three years. Brad Lukowich was the last Texas Stars suspended by the league, back on March 8, 2011.
Patrik Nemeth returned from injury after the All-Star break and has played in five of the six games since. Jack Campbell is practicing in Frisco and could play again for Texas in early March. Taylor Vause is still out with a foot injury. Toby Petersen is also out for an extended period with an upper body injury that required surgery.