CEDAR PARK, Texas – The Texas Stars came into game five of the Pacific Division Final with a chance to close the series on home ice, but the Tucson Roadrunners did all they could to keep that from happening.
The Stars came in having won three straight to take a 3-1 series edge and needed just one win to advance to the Western Conference Final. The last win of any series is always the hardest, and that would be no different here. The Roadrunners had not lost four games in a row all season, and they fought hard all night to avoid the first time being fatal.
Tucson was the better team for the majority of the game Friday, hemming Texas in its defensive end for long stretches at a time. Mike McKenna was there when called upon, however, as the veteran netminder stopped 37 of 39 Roadrunner shots on the night. His performance frustrated the Roadrunners yet again, as he did not allow them to take the lead at any point over the final four games of the series.
With the veteran McKenna holding down the fort in net, the Stars found their offensive hero in the form of rookie Joel L’Esperance. L’Esperance chipped in two massive points in game five and scored a clutch goal for the second time this season. He scored the goal against Rockford on April 7 that clinched a playoff spot for Texas, but his goal Friday was even more significant.
The Roadrunners started quickly, forcing McKenna to make a save from point-blank range just 0:21 into the contest. The Tucson forecheck kept the pressure going trying to find the go-ahead goal, but they were unable to find it and ended up conceding on a Texas counterattack just over five minutes in.
The spark came from L’Esperance, as the rookie from Michigan Tech took a feed from Matt Mangene and crossed into the Tucson zone with speed. He drove hard to the net, protecting the puck as he held off the defender and angled towards the slot, then quickly pulled it to his backhand and fired. Tucson goalie Adin Hill was able to make the save, but Colin Markison swooped in and slid the rebound around Hill and in to give Texas a 1-0 lead 5:20 into the game.
Tucson thought they had tied it with just under 8:00 to play in the frame when Carter Camper‘s shot beat McKenna and rattled off both posts. The red light came on, but it was waved off immediately by the referee. His call was confirmed after review, and the score remained 1-0 for the moment.
The Stars looked like they were going to have a chance to double the lead on the power play when the Roadrunners took a penalty with 7:07 left in the frame, but an undisciplined minor after the whistle made it four-on-four instead. Texas then went shorthanded with another minor just 30 seconds later, and Tucson made them pay for the penalties.
The power play goal came right as the initial minors expired, and with play still essentially four-on-three. Lawson Crouse was able to take advantage of the space and get open in front of goal. He took a feed from Camper and quickly lifted a backhander over the glove of McKenna to even the score with 5:03 left in the opening frame.
Neither team could strike again before intermission, and the first period came to a close with shots 13-8 Roadrunners, and the score even at a goal apiece.
Tucson dominated the first half of period two, kick-started by a Texas penalty just 0:42 into the frame. The Stars killed the minor but found themselves trapped in their zone long after penalty time expired. The Roadrunners outshot the Stars 8-1 over this stretch to bring the totals to 21-9 at one point, but McKenna stood tall to keep the score level. Tucson looked to be getting another man advantage 11:57 into the frame but killed its own momentum by taking a minor to even it up just 0:04 into the power play.
Tucson then gave Texas a power play three minutes later and found itself behind once again. Halfway through the advantage, Curtis McKenzie grabbed the puck off a faceoff and slid a pass to Brent Regner at the blueline, who then turned and fed Travis Morin at the opposite point. The veteran Morin had all kinds of space and patiently stepped up to the top of the circle before unleashing a wrister through traffic and into the back of the net. The goal was Morin’s third of the playoffs, and made the score 2-1 Stars with 3:39 left in the middle stanza.
Tucson took another minor just 30 seconds later, but instead of extending its lead, Texas conceded a shorthanded goal to tie the game. The goal came with 2:31 left in the period when Trevor Murphy carried it into the Texas zone on the rush, then passed it over to Ryan MacInnis coming in with a head of steam. The son of NHL Hall of Famer Al MacInnis released a shot that tipped off the stick of a defending McKenzie and shot over the shoulder of McKenna before the Stars goalie could react. It was MacInnis’ second of the postseason and sent the game to the third level 2-2.
The third period was a back-and-forth affair, with shots ending up 9-8 Texas in the frame. The game felt like it may as well already be in overtime as you could feel each team sensing one goal would most likely win it. Neither Hill nor McKenna would blink in the third, however, and the game headed to overtime level 2-2.
Texas had to withstand another early period surge by Tucson in overtime, this time allowing six of the first seven shots over the opening 5:00 of the period. As he has been throughout the postseason, though, McKenna was a wall in the Texas net. The Stars then regrouped and began to put the Roadrunners under pressure, and it soon paid off with a victory.
The series-winning moment came with 11:17 on the clock, as the Stars were able to take advantage of a stickless Hill. Hill had lost his stick defending against a rush some 20 seconds before the goal, but the Roadrunners were unable to clear the zone so he could retrieve it. Samuel Laberge took a pass from Gavin Bayreuther and blasted a slapper stick side on Hill. The Tucson goalie managed to blocker it down, but right to L’Esperance who easily cashed in the rebound and caused the celebration to commence in Cedar Park.
With the victory, Texas takes the series four games to one and advances to the Western Conference Final to face the Rockford IceHogs. Rockford also advanced Friday night, beating the Manitoba Moose 6-3 to sweep the series. The Stars were 1-2-0-1 against the IceHogs in the regular season, losing two in Rockford while splitting a pair in Cedar Park. The series will get started next Friday at 7:00 CT, with game one inside the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park.
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