ROCKFORD, ILL. – The Texas Stars came into game four one win away from a trip to the Calder Cup Finals, but the Rockford IceHogs were fighting to keep their season alive.
Texas entered Thursday’s game four with a three-games-to-none series lead thanks to an ability to win close games, having outscored Rockford by a slim 13-9 margin in three contests. The Stars won game one 4-2 before claiming overtime victories of 3-2 and 6-5 to take the 3-0 cushion in the series, bringing their record to 7-1 in one-goal games and 6-1 in overtime coming into play Thursday.
Game four was another close hard-fought fight between the two squads, and for the third time in four outings, defense was the name of the game on Thursday. It was a return to form after game three had seen the teams combine for 11 goals in a 6-5 Texas overtime win, as the scoring settled back down to five total tallies Thursday.
The goaltending matchup changed for game four, as the IceHogs gave the nod between the pipes to the veteran Jeff Glass. Glass was making his first career Calder Cup Playoffs appearance, but played in 28 regular season contests in 2017-18 for the IceHogs, going 15-9-3 (2.82 GAA .904 SV%). He also made 15 NHL appearances for the Blackhawks (3-7-3). Glass stepped up with an excellent performance in game four, stopping 28 of 30 Stars shots to hold the fort for the IceHogs while they chipped away at Mike McKenna.
Rockford came out strong to begin the contest, earning a power play just 2:27 into the opening frame. The Stars were able to kill the minor, but the IceHogs had all the momentum and held a 6-0 edge in shots at the first media timeout 6:04 into the first. The game remained scoreless at that point, but just 20 seconds after play resumed the IceHogs struck the opening blow.
The goal came off the rush after the Stars had nearly slipped through on a quick move by Roope Hintz, before losing the puck in the IceHogs zone. Viktor Svedberg picked up the puck and looked up the ice, spotting Victor Ejdsell skating towards the Texas line. Svedberg lobbed a lead-pass to the right-wing circle in the Stars zone, allowing Ejdsell to gather the puck with a head of steam and cut towards goal. He used a strong move to hold off the defenders while pulling the puck to his forehand and sliding it underneath of McKenna to put the hosts up 1-0 6:24 into the first period.
Penalties then came into play in a big way, as the IceHogs took consecutive minors to load the Stars power play with a five-on-three advantage for 1:37. The IceHogs got through the first 1:28 of the penalty kill, but then a trio of veterans combined to tie the game for the Stars.
The Stars cycled the puck around the zone looking for a shot when Justin Dowling let an offering go from the point. Curtis McKenzie was able to get a piece of it, but it was directed to the corner by Glass. Travis Morin grabbed the biscuit in the corner and skated around the circle bringing him to the edge of the lower slot. He found the angle he was looking for and whipped a quick wrister over the blocker of Glass and into the top corner to knot the score 1-1 with 4:08 to play in period one.
The IceHogs killed the remainder of the second penalty, but the damage had been done as the Stars were 1/2 on the power play and had tied the score at one. Texas would take momentum with them to the locker room, as they fired 11 of the final 14 shots of the frame to even the totals some. The first intermission hit with shots a slim 16-14 edge in favor of Rockford, and the score locked 1-1.
The second period was a strong period for the visiting Stars, as they played excellent defensively and controlled the pace of play. Texas outshot Rockford by a 10-6 count in the middle stanza and earned two power plays for its efforts as well. The IceHogs were able to kill an early second period penalty, but they would take another minor with 2:02 left in the frame, and this time the Stars would grab the go-ahead goal.
The IceHogs won a defensive zone draw with 30 seconds left in the second, but their clearing attempt got caught up in the bodies around the dot. Hintz swooped in and secured possession of the puck and slid it to Gavin Bayreuther at the near point. Bayreuther fed the puck across the blueline to Matt Mangene, and Mangene fired a shot through traffic that ticked off a Rockford defender and eluded Glass to find the back of the net with just 25.6 seconds on the clock. Mangene’s first of the postseason gave the Stars a 2-1 lead after two periods.
Texas tried to go into a shell and defend its way to victory to start the third period and succeeded for just over 13 minutes. The Stars blocked shots and took away passing lanes as best they could, but the patient IceHogs attack was finally able to find an opening and tie the game with just under seven minutes left in regulation.
The puck was wrapped around the boards after a faceoff to McKenna’s right, and Cody Franson stepped up to hold it in and whip a shot towards the net in one motion. The puck looked to be sailing wide, but Luke Johnson deflected it from the high slot, sending it streaking into the upper 90 before McKenna even had a chance to react. The goal was Johnson’s third of the playoffs, and evened the score at two with 6:58 left in the third.
Texas had an opportunity to regain the lead on the power play immediately after the Rockford goal, but the chance passed without the clutch moment. The Stars had a few more chances at even-strength, but the third period expired with the score level 2-2, sending the teams to overtime for the third straight game.
Overtime did not last long on Thursday, as under a minute into the extra frame the Stars took a fatal penalty. The game-winning power play goal came 2:32 into overtime, as McKenna made two big saves but kicked the second rebound across the net to an open Ejdsell. McKenna had absolutely no chance to get back and could only pray Ejdsell missed the net as he would up to fire. He did not, however, and his blast tickled the twine to end the game. Rockford won by a final count of 3-2 in overtime to stay alive.
With the loss, the Stars see their lead cut to three games to one in the West Final. The teams will get right back at it tonight, with game five set for 7:00 p.m. CT from the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford. Should the Stars win, the series ends in five, but if the IceHogs are victorious the series will shift back to Cedar Park for game six.
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