CEDAR PARK, Texas – The 2017-18 regular season has reached its climax, as the Texas Stars host the Stockton Heat with a chance to gain some serious separation from their Pacific Division rival.
With six games remaining, the Stars (35-24-7-4, 81 pts .579 pts%) hold a points percentage lead of .031 over Stockton (31-25-2-4, 68 points .548 pts%). Texas comes in with a magic number of nine to clinch a playoff spot, and they could reduce that number to five with a regulation win over the Heat. Stockton will do everything in its power to avoid it, knowing it would be almost impossible to overcome Texas at that point. Each team has five games remaining after tonight, with ten possible points for both teams, the Stars would only need to collect five of those to secure a postseason berth.
This will be the sixth and final meeting of the year between the Pacific Division rivals, with Stockton having won three of the first five. They have not played since a two-game set in Cedar Park in late January, with the squads splitting the weekend. The Stars claimed the most recent matchup with a 4-3 victory on January 27.
Call-ups are a part of life in the AHL, and the needs of the parent clubs have left a dent on both rosters since the last meeting. Stockton has scored 14 goals in five games, but they are without Spencer Foo who has led the Heat with six points (4-2–6) against the Stars. Foo is now with NHL Calgary, as is goaltender Jon Gillies. Gillies is 2-1-0 with a 2.02 GAA and a .917 Save% in three starts against the Stars. Stockton will need a big night in goal from probable starter David Rittich, who is 6-3-0 (2.66 GAA, .911 SV%) in nine games for the Heat in 2017-18. He had success in his only start against Texas this year, shutting out the Stars 2-0 November 4 in Stockton.
Texas has been severely affected by call-ups as well, but with NHL Dallas being eliminated, a couple of key players are back in Cedar Park. Texas captain, and leading goal scorer, Curtis McKenzie missed two months due to injury then was called up to Dallas for a few games, but this will be his third game back with Texas. The Stars will be looking for McKenzie to step up tonight since he has 25 goals on the campaign, but has yet to dent the net against Stockton. He is tied for the team lead with four points during the season-series, but all four are assists.
Jason Dickinson also has four points against the Heat (1-3–4), and it looks like the Stars will have Dickinson back after a long absence. Dickinson has played only three games for Texas since the January 27 win over Stockton, and none since February 24 against Milwaukee. Dickinson has 16 goals on the year, and the Stars need scoring help badly right now. Texas has scored just ten goals over their last five games. He is on the roster for tonight, and his return could be coming at the perfect time.
One player who will not be returning for the Stars is goalie Mike McKenna, who is up with Dallas right now, and picked up his sixth career NHL win (first with Dallas) last night in relief in San Jose. McKenna is 15-9-4 (2.69 GAA, .907 SV%) with Texas this year, and he was 6-1-0 in his last seven AHL starts. He had played well against Stockton as well, going 1-1-0 with a 2.03 goals against average and a .923 save percentage.
The Stars have been deep in net this season, however, and the Stars have been leaning on rookie Landon Bow in McKenna’s absence. Bow spent much of the first half of the season as the starter, but had seen his role change as the veteran McKenna got hot. Bow has stepped back into the starting role well, going 5-3-2-1 over his last 11 starts. Bow has not been bad against Stockton this year, but he hasn’t been on top of his game either. He is 1-2-0 in three starts against the Heat, and will be looking to improve upon his save percentage of .900 and goals against average of 2.69. He has played well recently, giving up three or fewer in four of his last five starts, and will look to continue that and guide the Stars to a big victory tonight.
Both teams know the importance of this game, and you can expect a playoff atmosphere inside the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park. Should Stockton win in regulation, they would be right back in the race in the Pacific, as their points percentage of .556 would be within .014 of Texas’ .570, which is essentially one game.
If the Stars win, however, the fat lady will start warming her vocal chords. Texas winning in regulation would leave them .045 ahead (.585-.540), and would see their magic number drop to five. Overtime would change the math, of course, as the losing team would gain one point and see their percentage remain basically the same.
This game promises to entertain from the beginning, as the intensity will already be high when the puck drops at 7:30 CT this evening. You can follow along with all the action, as you can all season, by following @SinBinStars on Twitter. We live tweet every game, home or away.