CEDAR PARK, Texas – The Texas Stars, who entered Friday’s game on a four-game winning streak, looked to snap the Rockford IceHogs’ seven-game winning streak by taking game one of the AHL Western Conference Final at home at H-E-B Center at Cedar Park.
They were able to do just that, with the victory kickstarted by Curtis McKenzie’s goal at just 4:22 of the first period.
The Stars had IceHogs goaltender Collin Delia scrambling early, with a shot from distance bouncing off the crossbar and igniting a frenzy in the goal crease. Delia could not snag the rebound, and McKenzie poked the puck in for the 1-0 lead.
Halfway through the period, the IceHogs would get one back as the league’s leading postseason power play continued its success. Entering game one, it was clicking along at an impressive 37.5%.
Foolishly, the Stars gave the IceHogs three consecutive minutes of power play time, including a minute of 5-on-3. This time, it was Carl Dahlstrom who tipped the shot from Chris DiDomenico through the legs of goaltender Mike McKenna.
Rockford’s characteristic aggressive offensive play would prove its downfall just a minute after tying the game, as it gift-wrapped a breakaway chance for Roope Hintz, who went forehand-backhand, opening up Delia’s five-hole and the winger expertly slid the puck between the pads to regain the lead for the home team.
Though the first period would end with the Stars leading 2-1, it was the IceHogs with the edge in shots on goal 15-7.
Taking his own turn lighting the lamp, DiDomenico tied the game once again for the visitors at 4:35 of the second period. While Rockford would end the match with the advantage in shots, DiDomenico’s goal was the last time the IceHogs foiled McKenzie.
With their own chance on the power play, the Stars regained the lead when they capitalized on Dahlstrom’s poor control of the rebound. The defenseman slid the rebound through the slot right to a waiting Remi Elie, who did not hesitate to regain the lead for the home team.
With another power play before the middle frame concluded the IceHogs almost tied the game, but it was the Stars who entered the third leading 3-2.
The final act began rather uneventfully with neither team really able to set up anything significant. Though the Stars did not convert on a power play opportunity seven minutes into the third, they scored immediately after when Sheldon Dries threw a backhand shot past Delia from the faceoff dot to his right to make it 4-2.
Lance Bouma spoiled any hope the IceHogs had of coming back to tie when he sat for holding with seven minutes left. His penalty firmly shifted any remaining momentum in favor of the Stars, and with the final buzzer sounding, they had beaten the Rockford IceHogs at their own game in game one of the Western Conference Finals. Pulling Delia for the extra attacker had been too little, too late for Jeremy Colliton’s team.
Delia turned aside 20 of 24 shots, a startling contrast from the 1.64 goals against average the netminder had entering the game. McKenna, meanwhile, stood on his head as he has been in the Stars’ five recent wins, this time saving 31 of 33 shots. Goaltending was arguably the difference-maker in game one, and it can very well be the deciding factor in all remaining games of the series.
On the power play, the two teams matched perfectly with each converting on one of four chances, but the Stars did score immediately after the expiration of one as well.
One of the biggest strengths of Rockford this postseason has been its ability to make adjustments between games, even when it was the victor. Do not expect game one to put a damper on Rockford’s postseason run yet as they continue play for the first time ever in the third round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.