With players like Radek Faksa and Curtis McKenzie in Dallas and others like Justin Dowling and Greg Rallo on the mend, February could have been a very dark time for the Texas Stars. Several rookies are shining a light into that dark place and pushing Texas further up the standings.
If you remember the early season for Texas, it was a goal-scoring bonanza. Devin Shore was chief among the scorers but was cut down by a low-check in December and had season ending shoulder surgery. Texas kept scoring but also had issues keeping the puck out of the net. That is, until Maxime Lagace arrived.
The last time Maxime Lagace lost a game was November 28th, 2015.
Let that settle in for a second. The rookie has won in ten straight decisions. His only blemish, if you can call it that, was a game that he was pulled from due to injury. Texas went on to win without him.
Lagace's numbers aren't world beaters in terms of statistics. He's got a 2.58 GAA and .919 SV%. But here's the thing, with the scoring so prolific for Texas, he doesn't need to be a world beater. He just needs to stop the puck when he's expected to. The Stars weren't getting that from John Muse and Jack Campbell and decided to make the change. They've been rewarded as Lagace now has a 14-4 record and the Stars sit second in the division with a very healthy buffer.
The Stars scoring could have suffered as well, making Lagace's efforts for naught. However, young players have stepped into the void. Jason Dickinson is the most notable this week. He notched four goals and three assists last week, including two game-winning goals and a shootout winner. He was plus-4 as well. Dickinson, who wants to be known first for his defensive prowess, has let the cat out of the bag on his ability to score.
All of this boils down to good news for the whole system. Dallas certainly had to be concerned about who was #1 in Texas for most of the season. That is settled now.
And further, there is very healthy competition among forwards for who gets the next callup, if it is needed. Cases could be made for Brett Ritchie, Brendan Ranford and now even Jason Dickinson depending on the role.
Texas survived an extremely raucous back-and-forth affair in Manitoba (Winnipeg Jets) last Wednesday evening. They eventually came out on the right side of a 7-6 shootout final, but not before scoring five in a row only to give back three and end up tied after regulation.
The Stars were up 2-1 after twenty with Derek Hulak netting the single Texas goal. The Moose added a third for good measure to open the second. Then Texas went on a tear. In order, the Stars got goals from Esa Lindell, Jason Dickinson, Ludwig Bystrom, Julius Honka and Curtis McKenzie. By the midpoint of the third, they led 6-3 and seemingly had the game locked down.
Manitoba made Texas look like the team they were back in November though. The Moose climbed back into the game with three goals in the final 10:02 of regulation.
Texas would play a scoreless overtime and head to the shootout. Travis Morin and Jason Dickinson scored.
Two periods into Saturday's contest, things were not going well for the Texas Stars. The home side was down 2-0 to the Lake Erie Monsters (Columbus Blue Jackets) and should have been down more if not for some stellar play from their goalie, Maxime Lagace. The third period was a complete turnaround that vaulted Texas to a 4-3 home win in overtime with the winning goal coming off the stick of Jason Dickinson for the third time this week.
"Just don't quit," said Dickinson. "We knew we were doing the right things. We just stuck with the game plan and got those goals. It's a bunch of confident and positive guys. Nobody quits."
Coach Laxdal called the game "a gutsy character builder" for his team and praised the effort of guys who are stepped up in the absence of recalled and injured forwards. Dickinson is chief among those right now. Dickinson has four goals and three assists this week alone.
"He's been playing real well," continued Laxdal. "It's part of the development and process. Confidence is big for him. He's getting rewarded for hard work offensively. He's taking a step here with our group and it's good to see."
Another player who has continued to step up is Maxime Lagace, who collected the overtime win with 33 saves. Jason Dickinson said the team knew they had to win the game for Lagace, especially after an athletic save he made with 14.8 seconds left to maintain the tie, "We're playing for this guy and he's playing for us. Lagace really kept us in there. It could have been a completely different game. "
Far from the run-and-gun games of November, the Texas Stars captured a tight, grind-it-out 2-1 win Sunday afternoon in Cedar Park. The win stretched their streak to five and put them at 8-2 in their last ten.
"You gotta give our guys credit," said Coach Laxdal. "That was a gutsy effort. Guys are just beat up. We asked everyone to play a role tonight and be part of the equation and everybody chipped in with an extra 3 or 4%."
Laxdal further called it the type of game where young players can develop a swagger for how to handle tight games.
With the recall of Curtis McKenzie this afternoon, one of those players asked to step up was Cole Ully. The rookie forward was scratched last night but jumped in to great effect this afternoon.
"When you're scratched, you want to come in and make an impact," said Ully. "To sit that out was tough and it motivated me to come out and play hard."
Ully's first period goal was the highlight of his night, which saw him take a significant amount of ice time on the Stars' third line and excel in it.
"I felt like I was flying out there in the first and second. It was a little more ice time than I'm used to in the third."
Maxime Lagace continued his unreal play with a 33 save effort and his tenth straight win. "Usually with goalies, it's a couple games up a couple games down, but he's been the most consistent. Our team has confidence in him when he's playing like that."
The Week Ahead
Texas plays the Gulls for the last time this season tonight in San Diego (Anaheim Ducks). The weekend brings two games in California against the Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings) and Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oilers). Former Star Luke Gazdic could play against the Texas Stars for the first time in his career on Saturday.
Much of the same for the Stars, unfortunately. Greg Rallo and Justin Dowling are still out. Dowling began skating this week which is a good sign. Earlier indications were that he might have to shut it down for the season. Greg Rallo is still under concussion protocol after a slew foot several weeks ago.