TUCSON, ARIZ – The Tucson Roadrunners and Texas Stars opened the Pacific Division Finals last night, in a tight defensive battle that would need overtime to decide it.
Both teams came in after very similar opening round series, with each splitting the first two games before winning two straight to end the series. Top-seeded Tucson knocked off fourth place San Jose, while two-seed Texas defeated Ontario.
Both sides would come in with a red-hot goalie as well, and the stellar goaltending continued in game one.
Mike McKenna of Texas came in off two games in which the Ontario Reign blasted a total of 91 shots towards the Texas net, only to be denied 91 times by McKenna. It started in game three when McKenna came in for Landon Bow midway through the game with Texas down 4-3. McKenna stopped all 44 shots he saw through the remainder of regulation and two overtime periods, as Texas rallied to tie and eventually win. It continued in game four as McKenna made 47 saves to guide Texas to a 1-0 win, and a 3-1 series victory.
Adin Hill of Tucson also came in off two straight shutout performances in the Roadrunners’ series with the San Jose Barracuda. Hill had been up and down in the first two games against San Jose, stopping 36 of 38 in game one, but allowing five goals on 31 shots in a game two loss. He would respond exceptionally well, however, shutting out the Barracuda on 21 shots in game three, then eliminating San Jose with a 25 save clean sheet in game four.
The goaltending display would continue, as the two teams and their keepers squared off in game one of the Pacific Division Finals Wednesday night. Hill and McKenna each brought their “A” game, and game one quickly turned into a battle of wills between the men starring at each other from opposite ends of the rink.
The first period started off poorly for the visiting Stars, as just 2:37 into the game, Texas found itself shorthanded. Penalties will play a big part in this series, and who can avoid the box may go a long way in deciding who will advance. The power play would prove to be big for each side before the night was out, but this time Texas was able to kill off the minor. The Stars would have a man advantage as well before the end of the first, but they too would miss on their first chance, and the first period would end scoreless.
The goaltending display would continue in the second period, with Hill and McKenna each making stellar saves to keep the zeros on the scoreboard. The game would reach the midpoint without the opening goal, but that would change with a power play goal in the final ten minutes of the frame.
Tucson would be the one to take the lead, as they would breakthrough with the man advantage with 6:20 left in the period. Mike Sislo took a feed from Mario Kempe, and fired a low shot from the near circle that trickled between the legs of McKenna and lay loose in the crease. Michael Bunting pounced on his opportunity, as he quickly reached out and poked the puck into the net to make it 1-0 Roadrunners after two periods.
The third would be a fight to the finish, as each team gave it their all to come away with a series lead after game one. Tucson did a great job defensively in the first half of the frame, as Texas had a hard time getting shots off in the Tucson zone.
Special teams and goaltending would come into play in the final ten minutes, starting with two massive saves by McKenna. First, McKenna made a patient save on a two-on-one, then a few minutes later, stretched his leg out to make a key save on a Roadrunner breakaway to keep the score 1-0. The two sides would each then have a chance for a key goal on a power play. Tucson had the first chance after Matt Mangene took a good penalty which prevented a great scoring chance with 8:11 left, but McKenna and the Texas penalty kill stood tall to keep the Stars within a goal.
Texas would then get a chance to tie the game on a man advantage of its own, and the Stars would break Hill’s shutout streak, and tie the game at one. With just 3:35 remaining in regulation, Travis Morin wired a shot towards goal from the far faceoff dot. Brian Flynn was in front of Hill, and was able to deflect the shot by the Roadrunner goalie and into the net. It was Flynn’s third of the playoffs, and tied the score 1-1.
The Stars came extremely close to winning it with just 1:22 left on the clock, as Texas captain Curtis McKenzie had a great chance to grab the go-ahead goal. McKenzie took a feed in front of goal and was able to direct the puck through Hill’s legs, and it slowly trickled towards the far post. It then turned into a race for the puck, as McKenzie tried to poke it the last few inches into the goal, but Hill dove back and smothered the puck before he could. The effort from Hill kept the game even 1-1, and the game would need more than 60 minutes to find a winner.
Each team had chances to score in overtime, but it would be Tucson that found a winner 8:53 into the extra frame. The goal once again came off the stick of Bunting, as he carried it into the Texas zone and fired a low slap shot on goal. The shot looked like it may have deflected off the stick of the Stars defender, but either way, the puck beat McKenna low blocker to end the game. It was Bunting’s second of the night, third of the postseason.
With the 2-1 win, Tucson draws first blood and takes a one game to none series lead. It was a tightly contested game throughout, and should be a sign of a lengthy and exciting series to come. The action will continue with game two tomorrow night in Tucson, with faceoff once again set for 7:05 p.m. PT (9:05 p.m. CT).
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