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Texas Stars Report: A Step Back Against Stiff Competition

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This week presented a stiff challenge to the Texas Stars. They came close but failed twice to beat the Griffins...

Jamie Oleksiak battles for the puck against Martin Frk
Jamie Oleksiak battles for the puck against Martin Frk
Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars

It was a measuring stick week for the Texas Stars, who faced off against the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings) for the first time in Texas since eliminating them from the 2014 AHL playoffs.

Grand Rapids started the season with some uncharacteristically meager play. From mid-January to mid-March, the club only lost one game in regulation, vaulting them to the top of the Western Conference standings. The Stars had a strong challenge against the Griffs and needed four points to have a very, very slim chance at claiming the division title for a third straight year.

The resulting games showed what it must have been like to play against the Texas Stars the past two seasons. No matter what your best wasn't good enough. The other side is just a step quicker, a shot better than you. Texas dropped both games as Tom McCollum had a fantastic weekend, stopping 79 of 82 shots against him.

That's what a good team can do to you. They play a game of interchangeable parts. With Petr Mrazek in Detroit, McCollum stepped up. With Teemu Pulkkinen on recall as well, it's Jeff Hoggan or Andy Miele picking up the slack. That's what Texas saw last year and what every team needs in the AHL to be successful.

Now Texas has one more game at home before hitting the midwest for their last true road trip of the season. The Stars appear locked into the 6th seed right now. If things play out as they are right now, that would mean a rematch against the Griffins in the first round and potentially a quick exit from their Calder Cup defense.

Valeri Nichushkin getting more confident in AHL stint

Valeri Nichushkin has hit the ground running in the AHL. By the time the third period rolled around on Saturday, Coach Laxdal had him on the top line and out on the power play. He will start there tonight against Adirondack in preparation for his recall to Dallas tomorrow. It could be a very fun night with Dallas having just sent Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie down on assignment. Nichushkin is likely to play wing on a line with McKenzie and Travis Morin while Ritchie will probably line up with Brendan Ranford and Justin Dowling.

Griffins' McCollum Robs Stars with 2-0 Shutout

The matchup between the two most recent winners of the AHL's top prize looked to be just that Friday in Cedar Park. Unfortunately for the home side, the Griffins walked away with a 2-0 margin on the final score.

"I thought it was a great game with a lot of speed and intensity," said Grand Rapids goalie Tom McCollum. "I told our equipment manager after the first period that it felt like we were playing ourselves. We have very similar systems and play at a high tempo."

Grand Rapids owed much of its success on the night to McCollum, who pitched a 34-save shutout.

"I felt like I was seeing the puck well early. My defensemen and forwards were giving me clear lanes and making it an easy night."

Jack Campbell was good at the other end, giving Texas a chance to win with 36 saves on 38 shots. In the end, the Stars couldn't penetrate McCollum with enough quality chances to break his shutout.

Coach Laxdal expanded, "We've got to manufacture more shots, funnel more pucks to the net. We need more traffic. We're getting boxed out. We've got to do a better job getting pucks to the net through that second layer."

Texas had its chances to get on the board with three power plays in the game. McCollum and the Griffins were aware of the Stars' prowess on the PP and "paid a lot of attention to it" in pre-scouting.

Grand Rapids executed when they had chances. Their first goal came directly off a defensive zone faceoff where Coach Laxdal noted they took advantage of young centerman Devin Shore. Andreas Atahansiou won the puck forward toward the net to Mark Zengerle, who scored uncontested by a skater.

The Stars and Griffins combined for 36 shots in the second period with Texas trailing 1-0 after 40.

The visitors added another early in the third to set the final score at 2-0, a quick shot that the referee didn't even register as a goal at first.

Texas was unable to convert anything with the extra attacker. Many of their best chances came in the high-shooting second, but McCollum smothered them all.

Coach Laxdal concluded, "Could we ask for more in certain areas? Maybe. But it was a good game."

Finally, the night was notable for Dallas Stars fans as it marked the first game action for Valeri Nichushkin in five months. The left winger had no points and was minus-1 on the scoresheet. However, those stats didn't tell the whole story. He was the best player on the ice for Texas most of the night, making strong plays look simple and effortless.

"For a player that hasn't played in five months, he's a special player. You can see how strong he is on the puck. For him to get through a game and feel good about himself, I think he'll be better tomorrow night."

Strong Texas Effort Stymied by Griffins Keeper, McCollum

The Stars had two very good games this past weekend, but their opponents, the Grand Rapids Griffins, were just a step better each time. Texas fell tonight by a 4-3 final.

"If you play like that every night, you're going to win a lot of hockey games," said Texas Stars coach Derek Laxdal. "[Griffins' goalie] Tom McCollum was probably the difference in both games."

Texas poured on the shots tonight after not getting enough quality chances on Friday, peppering McCollum with 48 total shots this evening.

"Tom was great in both games," commented Griffins' coach Jeff Blashill. "He didn't give up any easy ones. The puck stuck to him, and he was big at big moments."

Despite the two losses, Blashill went on to praise the Stars' effort this weekend, "This is a really good team. They are a team that is going to be good down the stretch. It was readily apparent this weekend."

Texas answered two Grand Rapids one-goal leads but could not come back after the Griffins went up 4-2 in the third period.

Valeri Nichushkin started on a line with Branden Troock and Devin Shore but moved to the first line with Greg Rallo and Travis Morin in the third, earning some power play time as well. He will start there against Adirondack on Wednesday, which is the Stars' next game action.

The Week Ahead

Texas plays its only home game, well ever, against the Adirondack Flames (Calgary Flames) tonight. The Flames will move to Stockton, California, next season. The Stars then hit the road for games in Milwaukee (Nashville Predators) and Chicago (St. Louis Blues). Next Tuesday will see a final game against the Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild) in Des Moines.

Injury Report

Derek Meech left Saturday's game with a lower body injury. He's out at least for tonight against Adirondack. Radek Faksa and Jussi Rynnas are also still out.