The Texas Stars now stand in fourth place in the Central Division for the AHL. They’re nowhere near Chicago, Grand Rapids, or Iowa, each of whom are now at least seven points ahead with at least one game in hand.
At the same time, Texas has some separation to fifth place. Rockford is three points behind with just one game in hand.
The next 14 games — that’s all Texas has left — will be crucial. The Texas Stars need to remain ahead of the Ice Hogs, even if they can’t catch the Wild. That’s when the real test will come — with no Roope Hintz for the playoffs, Texas will need to depend on their veterans and the (hopeful potential) return of the best goal scorer in the AHL, Joel L’Esperance.
It’s a good thing, then, that over the past 10 games, some of those veterans have returned to form. Michael Mersch had nine points (seven of them primary) and Erik Condra and Justin Dowling both had seven.
That’s good news for a team that has had just a 4-4-2 record over the past stretch, a record that Texas will need to improve upon.
The other good news is that the young players Texas will need in the playoffs are shaping up. Ben Gleason had six points, all of which are assists. He didn’t lead the defense offensively, however.
That’s Niklas Hansson, the 24-year-old second-year defenseman, who’s improved dramatically this season from last year.
Over the past 10 games, Hansson has had a spike in production, brought about by a promotion in the lineup. Hansson has had nine points in the last 10 games, tied for the most on the team, including three goals. He has doubled his season totals in every category.
Hansson’s offensive surge has brought better results for the rest of the defense as well. Joel Hanley, Gavin Bayreuther, and Dillon Heatherington each had four points.
The Texas Stars have also gotten better results from young forwards like Adam Mascherin, Nicholas Caamano, and Denis Gurianov. Despite missing three games, Gurianov has been one of the best forwards for the team, and has been a point-per-game player in his last seven. Caamano and Mascherin each have six points and have improved their games.
So how have the Texas Stars only been about .500 over the last stretch?
Goaltending has a large part to play in it. Landon Bow and Philippe Desrosiers haven’t been as good as they were for much of February (and prior to that). Desrosiers has a .894 save percentage, while Bow has fallen off from his previous excellence to just a .859 SV%.
The penalty kill has been lacking without L’Esperance as well. They’ve killed just 69.7 percent of their penalties over the past 10 games. That’s bound to cost the team some games.
Texas has allowed two games with multiple power play goals against, and another game where the game-winner came on the opposing man advantage.
The power play hasn’t been much better. The Texas Stars have allowed four shorthanded goals against, and had a game where they went scoreless despite six chances (a game they lost).
This is a team with a lot of talent, but talent that will need to show up as the season closes. They did well in the past 10, but not well enough defensively.
In addition, there’s no Mike McKenna this season. If the Texas Stars are going to go on another deep playoff run, one (or both) of Bow or Desrosiers will need to prove themselves. These next 14 games will be the final proving ground.
Not just for them, necessarily, either, but for the whole team.