ROCKFORD, ILL – The Texas Stars came into game three of the Western Conference Final looking to extend their winning streak to seven games and put the Rockford IceHogs on the brink of elimination.
The Stars came into game three with a two games to none edge in the series, thanks to a pair of narrow victories on their home sheet of ice. Mike McKenna stopped 55 of 59 IceHogs offerings over the two contests, as the Stars won 4-2 in game one, then claimed a 3-2 overtime success in game two.
The game two win saw a duo of trends continue that would also make the trip north with the Stars, namely their success in one-goal games and overtime. Including game three, Texas has now played in eight one-goal games of which seven needed more than 60 minutes to find a winner; The Stars have won all but one of them (7-1, 6-1 in overtime).
Tuesday night would be another close game, but where the previous pair were defensive, this battle would be an offensive explosion. The Stars and IceHogs combined to find the back of the net five times in the first period alone, then traded punches over the final 40 minutes to find themselves headed to extra time tied 5-5.
Rockford opened the scoring 4:43 into the first period on a tremendous individual effort from Tyler Sikura. Sikura used a toe-drag to beat his defender and find an open shot from the top of the slot that beat McKenna five-hole to make it 1-0 IceHogs.
The Stars were able to respond on the power play just 2:30 later when a broken clearing attempt found its way to Curtis McKenzie on the doorstep. The Texas captain poked the puck under Collin Delia for his first goal of the evening to bring the score back level with 12:47 still to play in the first.
The IceHogs grabbed the lead once again five minutes later, taking advantage of a delayed penalty on the Stars when John Hayden beat McKenna with a laser from the slot to make it 2-1 12:10 into the first. The lead did not last long, however, as once again Texas had an answer.
The Stars responded with not one, but two tallies of their own in just over a minute to flip the script and claim the lead. First, Justin Dowling tied the game with 6:36 left in the first when he skated in and fired a perfect snipe up into the top corner as Delia dropped down into the butterfly.
Then, 1:08 later, Jason Dickinson forced a turnover on the forecheck and fired a centering pass that deflected off a charging Sheldon Dries and into the net. There was a brief discussion between the officials to determine whether Dries had interfered with Delia or kicked the puck in, but the goal stood to give Texas the 3-2 lead that they held after 20 minutes.
The second period was dominated by the IceHogs, as they attacked from the onset trying to find the tying goal. Rockford outshot Texas by a 16-6 margin in the middle stanza and scored twice to regain the lead.
The tying tally came as a power-play was expiring just over six minutes into the middle period, and looked to be a power-play goal at first. The goal was ruled an even-strength marker off the stick of Gustav Forsling, however, as his shot from the point tickled the twine right as Joel L’Esperance stepped out of the box. The goal may as well have been a PPG, but as it turned out this snapped the IceHogs streak of consecutive games with a PPG at 11 as they never got another chance.
Rockford regained the lead just over six minutes later, shortly after killing a minor of its own. League leader in playoff points Chris DiDomenico stepped out of the box and quickly gained control of the puck. He carried it into the zone before firing a pass to Matthew Highmore, who then found Luke Johnson open for the backdoor tap-in that made it 4-3 IceHogs 12:21 into the second.
The IceHogs continued to press looking for an insurance tally to take with them to the third, but McKenna and the Stars stood tall to keep the deficit at a single goal. The horn sounded to end the middle stanza with Rockford still holding the 4-3 lead.
The first half of the third period went by without a goal, then with 9:56 to play in regulation the Stars found the tying goal. It was the second of the night, and sixth of the playoffs, for the rookie Dries as his poise was on display for all to see. Dries took a feed from Reece Scarlett as he broke to the net from the near faceoff dot with nobody between him and Delia. He patiently glided in on goal, faked backhand, then quickly pulled the puck back to his forehand and slid it around a beaten Delia to knot the score 4-4.
Texas then took the lead just under four minutes later, as Austin Fyten scored his first of the playoffs in his first appearance this postseason. The goal came with 5:30 left in regulation when a pass from McKenzie was deflected high into the air. Fyten leaped to grab the puck then sat it down and drove hard towards the net. He was able to jam a shot underneath Delia and in to suddenly give Texas a 5-4 advantage to protect.
The IceHogs were not interested in conceding defeat, though, and pulled Delia for the extra man with 2:30 left to play in regulation. McKenna and the Stars held the fort for a little over 90 seconds, but an inability to change lines after multiple icings wound up biting them. DiDomenico won a faceoff and Johnson found Cody Franson at the point, and Franson beat a screened McKenna with 50 seconds left to send the squads to extra time for the second consecutive game.
The Stars would need just five minutes to claim victory for the sixth time in seven tries at overtime this postseason, and for the second straight game, McKenzie was the hero. The game-winner came 5:12 into the period and was unassisted as McKenzie was trying to pass the puck through the slot when Adam Clendening tipped the puck into his own net trying to defend. The friendly fire ended the action in game three, and now has his Rockford squad facing elimination and staring at an 0-3 hole.
With the result, Texas takes a commanding three games to none edge in the Western Conference Final. Game four is scheduled for Thursday at 7:00 p.m. CT in Rockford. You can follow along with this series, as you can each of the other remaining AHL and ECHL playoff series, by following us on Twitter. You can follow @SinBinStars and @SinBinWolves for this series, and @SinBinNews for all other news.
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