Being a head coach in the AHL is tough. We've written about it here before at length. The conflicting motivations among your players, the callups, schedule. The whole thing is hard and if you want to win games, you have to figure out anew each year what is the thing that motivates your ragtag group of 23? It's not a motivational speech, a Rocky montage and then the Calder Cup. There's an X factor, and it changes each year.
For coach Laxdal this year, what seems to work is getting mad.
During the Stars recent homestand, which started against Chicago, the officiating was lackadaisical to say the least. Coach Laxdal was not pleased with liberties taken by the Wolves' heavy defensive corps. He did not sit back though. He got mad. He got up out of his chair, went to the window, and told the crew he was mad as hell and wasn't going to take it anymore.
And it worked. Texas won both games against a Chicago squad that was just above them in the standings. Those were important four-point games that the Stars won because their coach got mad.
Over the ensuing six games, the Stars would play San Antonio four times. The biggest 'get mad' moment came in a hard-hitting game last week in San Antonio. Curtis McKenzie and Gemel Smith had already dropped the gloves, and everyone was getting chippier by the minute.
An exchange at the bench between players escalated into a shouting match between coach Laxdal and San Antonio's head coach, Tom Rowe. At the AT&T Center, there is nary but a thin pane of glass between the two benches. Laxdal began pushing the pane of glass a la Patrick Roy.
The team was assessed a bench minor, which they killed off, but then they outscored the Rampage 3-0 to win the game 5-2. It was a turning point in the game. Maybe in the season.
In Tuesday's win against San Antonio, it wasn't Laxdal getting mad. His players brought a level of physical play that they haven't been known for this season. They mucked it up at the net, in the corners, between the whistles and in all manner of ways. Travis Morin, of all people, got into a shoving match with Josh McFarland. Julius Honka upended a guy with a big hip check. The crowd responded; the players responded. It was a 6-1 win.
After the game, the now more Bruce Banner-like coach Laxdal said that the club is finally "playing for each other."
And there's your X factor. Let's get in the battles together and win them for each other.
The value of last Thursday's win against the San Antonio Rampage (Florida Panthers) cannot be overstated. With it, Texas is in sole possession of eighth place and now has 10 points in their last six games. For San Antonio, it was their first regulation loss to a divisional opponent on home ice all season. Previously, they were 12-0-2.
Greg Rallo got first star honors in his 500th AHL game as well. 397 of them have come with either a Texas or San Antonio jersey on.
There was some bad blood between the coaches as well. Coach Laxdal earned a two-minute penalty after pushing down the divider between the two benches and getting into it with the other bench.
The Stars' sluggish start put them in a 3-1 hole after forty from which they would not recover. Despite a third period power play tally, Texas dropped a 3-2 decision to the visiting Barons (Edmonton Oilers).
"We've been pushing real strong on this segment," said Laxdal. "But we came out flat tonight. We expected our group to have some good jump in the first period, but we didn't get our legs until the third period.
Texas and Oklahoma City had a sleepy start to the game, combining for just four shots in the first twelve minutes of the game.
"We were sluggish to begin the game," agreed Rallo. "Moving forward, we got better, but that's not good enough at this level."
Having not played since Thursday and getting Friday and Saturday off, the Stars' start was not ideal.
Laxdal added, "A typical Sunday game in the American League. I expected our team to have more energy than Oklahoma City. We didn't find our game until the third period and by theyn, it was too late."
"I didn't think Jussi [Rynnas] was sharp. Of the three goals, we should have had two of the three. Every game is tough for us. Every point we let go is going to hurt us at the end."
The game marked the final visit for the Oklahoma City squad, which is heading to Bakersfield, California next season.
Faced with a schedule that will see them outside the state of Texas for most of the rest of the month of February, the Stars took one final opportunity to collect some huge points Tuesday in Cedar Park with a 6-1 throttling of the San Antonio Rampage. Coach Laxdal called out two-goal scorer Gemel Smith as the best player on the ice.
"It was a great team effort overall and guys were clicking," said Jamie Oleksiak, who had the game-winning goal and two assists. "Once we get momentum, guys start making plays, and we gain confidence."
The game's momentum hinged on a San Antonio 5-on-3 power play that spanned the first intermission. Coach Laxdal called out the excellent play of Greg Rallo, Jamie Oleksiak and Cameron Gaunce on the penalty kill to keep San Antonio off the board. The Stars drew a penalty while down 5-on-3 and then scored on the resulting power play after killing the 4-on-3 segment.
Jamie Oleksiak collected the puck in front of the net and deposited it in the twine with a nifty turn-around move. From there, the Stars were off to the races on San Antonio.
The first period had been a grinding and physical affair, certainly expected by both parties after playing each other three times in the last week.
"I liked our physical presence," said Laxdal. "When you add Oleksiak, Wrenn and Henderson, we got heavier as a team, which is something we lack, especially in a game against San Antonio."
The Week Ahead
The Stars hit the road for their longest trip of the season. This week will see them play two games against the worst squad in the AHL: the Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild). For Texas to get to the playoffs, they need to emerge from the weekend's games with four points. Four more road games will follow in the week after.
Justin Dowling, Maxime Fortunus and Scott Glennie all just joined the walking-wounded. Fortunus is day-to-day with an upper boday issue and could play this weekend. Dowling skated in practice in a no-contact jersey. No word on Glennie.
Kevin Henderson returned to the lineup this week. Radek Faksa is still out long-term after injury but is now in Austin with the team and without a sling.