The Stars' two games this weekend were examples of what happens when you do and don't have depth scoring activating.
On Friday, the Stars faced the worst team in the league, the Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild), for the second time in a week. After a 5-2 victory on Wednesday, powered by the return of Justin Dowling to the lineup, the Stars had their worst performance of the season, arguably. With just 3 shots on goals and 18 in the game, acting captain Stephen Johns summarized it bluntly, "I don't think we deserved to win."
It was especially telling when Coach Laxdal noted, "There were a lot of opportunities for guys to step up, and there was spotty play."
With many of its top forwards out and having lost Julius Honka to injury in the first, depth scoring did not come through for Texas that night.
Perhaps inspired by that loss, the Stars third line roared to life in their Saturday contest. Gemel Smith had a pair of goals and an assists. Cole Ully put in a goal and two assists. Remi Elie had two assists and a plus-4 rating.
"They played with a lot of energy and structure," said Laxdal. "They got rewarded for that tonight. I liked the depth we had."
Remi Elie added, "It's a big opportunity for us in the bottom six to play a little more ice time. You just have to go out there and do what we did tonight."
With Brett Ritchie and Radek Faksa unlikely to return, Texas will continue to look to the bottom six for similar contributions in the coming games.
The Stars have mostly solidified themselves in second place in the Pacific and would play the San Diego Gulls (Anaeim Ducks) in the first round if the playoffs started today. Texas has a 5-1 record against San Diego this season. The last game of the season is April 16th.
Texas made its mark in the second period with a four goal outburst that put them over the league-worst Wild by a 5-2 final. The Stars got it done every which way with a power play tally and a shorthanded marker among their goals on the evening.
Justin Dowling made his return to the lineup after two months out with a knee injury. Coach Laxdal called him a "catalyst" for the Stars as he collected two assists, one each on the power play and shorthanded.
"Coming back after two months to contribute and help win a game is huge for my confidence," said Dowling. "It's good to be back in the dressing room with the guys again."
Coach Laxdal expanded, "Justin was outstanding, especially for a player who hasn't played in two months. He was at top speed. He was on it."
Even with the margin, Maxime Lagace was tested in the game, stopping 30 of 32 shots. His best came on the penalty kill in the second as he snagged a shot from Jordan Schroeder at the goal line.
"He's made the big save at the right moment, which is key," said Laxdal. "Max didn't quit."
Playing the worst team in the league, Texas let Iowa control the flow of the game and didn't execute on their plan, by their own admission. Coach Laxdal expanded, "I didn't like a lot of our game tonight. I don't think we played to our potential."
Texas opened the scoring but then found themselves on the back foot after allowing the Wild to score three straight. Goals two and three came in a 35 second span. Former Stars captain Maxime Fortunus sniped one far side on Lagace and ended his night. A frustrated Coach Laxdal told his players on the bench, "If you're not going to play for that guy, play for this guy." He put in Jack Campbell for his first AHL game action since December 19th.
Texas' first period shot total of 3 was the lowest all season for any period and the total of 18 was also a season low.
"They played a tight trap in the neutral zone," said Johns. "It seemed like we didn't have anything, just trying to chip pucks in on the forecheck. They did a good job protecting their net. We have to find a way to get more pucks on the net."
Not helping matters was the loss of Julius Honka in the first period. After a crushing hit by the player entrance door, Honka played a few more shifts but didn't return in the second. The team had dressed Matt Mangene at forward, but he stepped in at defenseman as the legs wore down for the remaining five.
Texas got the bounce back win they wanted Saturday against the Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets), hanging six on an NHL calibre goalie and ending the week with five points in three games.
"I thought it was a solid effort form start to finish," said Coach Laxdal. "We got key contributions for [Gemel Smith]'s line. [Manitoba's Connor] Hellebuyck's a hell of a goaltender. Now the weekend looks pretty good with 5 of 6 points."
The line of Gemel Smith, Cole Ully and Remi Elie was a big part of the team's success. They contributed three of the six goals and combined for seven points.
Neither Elie nor Ully knew exactly what to attribute their chemistry to, but Ully was probably on the right track when he noted that when he gets "a chance to play those bigger minutes, it's nice and builds confidence"
With big scorers Greg Rallo and Travis Morin out and Brett Ritchie and Radek Faksa in Dallas, Coach Laxdal is asking more of his bottom six. They were able to deliver. Cory Kane also scored and Branden Troock dropped the gloves.
The Week Ahead
Texas heads to California for two games against the Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames) this weekend.
Greg Rallo and Travis Morin are still out with injuries. Julius Honka was injured on Friday but could be a player by the weekend.