With two final games last week, Texas closed out the regular season and now pivots to the playoffs. The opponent, as with any divisional playoff setup, is a familiar one: the San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks).
For at least the past few months, it seemed nearly certain that Texas would play San Diego in the first round. It was just a question of who would own home ice advantage. These two teams last matched up on February 17th, and San Diego looked to be the third seed. After losing that game, the Gulls were just three games above 0.500 and the Stars had every reason to be confident about their pending matchup. They were 5-1 against the Gulls on the season and had just finished the series with a 6-3 spanking.
Then the Gulls got hot.
Since the two teams last played, the Gulls are 16-3-3-1, earning them over three-quarters of the available points. Over the same period, Texas is 9-7-5-0. If the palyoffs are all about getting hot and staying hot, this could be a problem for the Stars. Coach Derek Laxdal is certainly aware of the dichotomy, "You can look at it two ways. They've got a great roster and having a great second half. In the playoffs, everyone has that clean slate."
The book on the matchup between these teams has been speed versus size all season. That is unlikely to change in the playoffs. "They play that truculent game that [NHL affiliate] Anaheim likes to play. We're a speed team; they're a physical team. It's going to be a chess match."
One of the simplest move of the match will be the move that Texas doesn't make. Captain Travis Morin noted that the Gulls often tried to goad the Stars into post-whistle antics, "We have to stay out of the box. During the regular season, it played out that way. They tried to push us around after whistles. If they want to do that again, we have to keep the same mentality."
The concept of special teams is going to be a big one; Morin called out the skill on the San Diego power play as a huge reason to stay out of the box (more on that below). Laxdal harkened back to the series last year against Rockford that saw the Stars go 1-for-10 on the man advantage (and allow 3 PPGs on 13 opps for a 77% PK).
"That's one thing we didn't capitalize on last year against Rockford," Laxdal recalled. "When you're in a five-game series, you have to score a power play goal a game if you want to have a chance. Their power play is solid and [their goalies] are solid. We have to utilize our speed. We know we're not a big physical hockey club."
Storylines to watch
Impact of veterans - Former Star Chris Mueller and current Star Travis Morin are both poised (as always) to make huge impacts for their clubs. The one that comes out on top could hand his team a significant advantage. Both of these players live for the power play, so it will be key to stay out of the box.
Rookies in the spotlight - Nick Ritchie, Brandon Montour, and Maxime Lagace are all high-impact players who will be making their playoff debuts. Jason Dickinson played a few playoffs games last season but is still an AHL rookie. With the center lineup set in the top two, Dickinson could be a very important piece of the puzzle. If he can light things up on the third line, that puts major pressure on the Gulls' depth.
Maxime Lagace - The elephant in the room is Lagace's play over the last month or so. Since February 17th, he's gone 4-6-3, including 3 pulls. Putting Jack Campbell in for the last game was a two-pronged strategy: give Lagace rest and maybe plant that seed of doubt about his starter role. Tonight will tell us if it worked.
Needing a full two points for a chance at home ice in the opening round, Texas fell in overtime to frequent visitors San Antonio (Colorado Avalanche) last Wednesday night. The game was one of wild swings, which twice saw Texas score to tie the game only to see the Rampage counterattack on the next shift.
"We talked about it in between periods," said Travis Morin. "That those are the biggest shifts, whether they score or we score."
In the end, San Antonio's loose game overcame Texas. The Rampage, who were eliminated from the playoffs a while ago, are trying more things and being more aggressive. Laxdal agreed, saying the Rampage were playing "a wide open game."
San Antonio struck first with a pair of goals that put Texas on the back foot. Curtis McKenzie noted, "I think we were a little loose to start the game and we were playing catch up a lot of the game."
Overtime was overtime for the Stars, who have had bad luck in the 3-on-3 extra frame since its inception. Dennis Everberg scored from the high slot with under a minute left for the final 6-5 score.
With their first round matchup already set, Texas closed the season on a high note with a 4-1 blasting of the Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets) in front of a sellout crowd at the Cedar Park Center.
"It's a tough game to get through because your mindset is focused on the playoffs," said Laxdal. "It was a trap game, but we did enough to get the win."
The Moose played a loose game, similar to San Antonio on Wednesday, with nothing left to play for but pride and contracts. They could have easily been up by two late in the first if not for the efforts of Jack Campbell in net.
"For me personally, it was a good opportunity," said Campbell. "I was pretty fired up. I just tried to go out there and play my game and be calm and show my confidence level is high."
Game 1: San Diego at Texas Stars, Thursday, April 21, 7:30 PM CT
Game 2: San Diego at Texas Stars, Saturday, April 23, 7:00 PM CT
Game 3: Texas Stars at San Diego, Thursday, April 28, 9:05 PM CT
Game 4: Texas Stars at San Diego, Friday, April 29, 9:05 PM CT (if necessary)
Game 5: Texas Stars at San Diego, Monday, May 2, 9:05 PM CT (if necessary)
Texas is mostly healthy now, aside from the long-term out-for-the-season injuries. Cole Ully, Branden Troock and Devin Shore are all in that camp.