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CEDAR PARK, TEXAS – In what has been a series of inches, with each of the three previous games having been decided by one goal, the Toronto Marlies and the Texas Stars faced off again Thursday evening at H-E-B Center. The former looked to extend its series lead from 2-1 to 3-1, while the latter hoped to knot tie the series to make it a best-of-three.

For the first time thus far in the Calder Cup Finals, the team which scored first wound up being the victors, but the win did not come without a gut-check or two.

After the two teams took turns exchanging rushes early, the Stars would get the game’s first power play at 9:22 of the opening frame. Entering game four, Texas had been converting 37.5% of the time on the man advantage, and the Stars’ captain would improve upon that stat even further in the first.

Curtis McKenzie opened the game’s scoring at 10:50 on the power play when he easily popped the rebound from Travis Morin’s shot into the now-open net with Garret Sparks out of position from the initial save. With his ninth goal of the Calder Cup Playoffs, McKenzie surpassed teammate Sheldon Dries for both the team, and league, goal-scoring lead.

The Marlies would get a power-play chance of their own before the first ended, but their woes on the man advantage continued and the Stars carried their 1-0 lead into the first intermission even with the Marlies having the 13-10 shots on goal advantage.

Texas’ lead was doubled at 6:00 of the second when McKenzie potted the pass from Justin Dowling off the rush for his 10th playoff goal. Vincent LoVerde, who had saved a few sure-goals during the game himself, lost track of McKenzie leaving the Stars’ captain wide open for the pass and eventual goal. The only other player in Texas Stars’ history to score 10 or more goals in a single playoff season is the now-captain of the Dallas Stars Jamie Benn.

The game’s third goal was also scored by a Stars player, but the crowd groaned for this one as Brent Regner fired the puck past his own goaltender Mike McKenna. It appears as though he had meant to feed the puck to McKenna so the goaltender could hold it for a whistle, but it instead went in clear between his legs to halve the Stars’ lead at 16:11 of the second. The goal was credited to Dmytro Timashov.

The quick-moving Toronto Marlies needed just forty seconds after the Texas own-goal to tie the game. This time, it was speedy Andreas Johnsson scoring off the rush and the Marlies found themselves with a chance to come from behind to take the lead entering the final frame of regulation. Their momentum was evident as the period wound down, with the Marlies limiting the Stars to just five shots on goal in the middle frame while recording 12 of their own.

Texas would get the chance early on the man advantage to break the 2-2 tie, but it was the Marlies with two odd-man rushes shorthanded who had the best opportunity to score during that two-minute span. Not only was the Stars’ power play held without a shot, but it took until nine minutes into frame for them to register their first.

As it turns out, they only needed to register two to record the win. This time, Dowling got a goal of his own when he expertly tipped Matt Mangene’s point shot past Sparks through traffic to make it 3-2 in favor of the home team.

The Marlies pulled Sparks for the extra attacker with 2:36 on the clock, and while they were able to set up play after play, they were unable to execute with at least three backdoor passes in that final time frame not finding a recipient on the other end.

The Texas Stars would end the third having registered just two official shots on goal, but it was the home team who skated away with the 3-2 win even after being out-shot 28-17. With the win, the Stars have pushed the series to at least a game six, when the series will shift back to Toronto for a victor to be crowned.

McKenna made 26 saves in the victory, while Sparks saved just 14 in the loss. Sparks stayed on the ice much later than the rest of his teammates after the game, clearly disappointed in his play, but he was not the reason for the loss. Many of Texas’ shots were high quality, high danger chances while Toronto left pass after pass without a recipient.

When asked about Texas’ hard-hitting style of play after the game, Toronto Head Coach Sheldon Keefe said,

“I don’t know if they play big and heavy to be honest. They’re physical and all that but they play fast, they’ve got skill, they move the puck extremely well. The other piece, I would say, about their team is that’s the most mobile and skilled defense that we’ve seen. They move the puck extremely well from the back end. They have a lot of speed through the team but they play physical for sure and they defend physically as well. so there’s a lot more to that team than being what you would call an old school, grind it out type of team. That’s a good hockey team with a lot of skill and a lot of depth through their team. It’s a battle. It’s been fun. It’s going to continue to be fun.”

He had mentioned earlier that the Marlies had not been challenged by a team with this much depth since the opening round against the Utica Comets. For Toronto, their ability to roll four dangerous lines has clearly been the difference-maker thus far in the postseason as they swept two less-deep teams.

Dillon Heatherington revealed his team was not down on itself headed into the second intermission after having given up the 2-0 advantage.

“We’ve been in that situation a lot this year with the amount of overtime games we’ve played, amount of games where we’ve had a goal lead or down a goal in the third, that’s just kind of the way we play so we’re comfortable in the situation and again, we kept our heads.”

Not only did the Marlies keep the Stars without a shot for the first nine minutes of the third period, but they had held them to just six shots in 30 minutes of game play.

When Dowling’s goal went in, the team exhaled a sigh of relief, explained McKenzie,

“[It was] Definitely nice. We just had to stick with it, get shots to the net when we could, maybe a little more than that period. Obviously it sat us back when they scored the two quick ones but we were able to regroup in intermission and it helped big time.”

Dowling’s game-winning goal had come off a set play per Derek Laxdal.

“We’ve kinda been doing that all year,” said Dowling. “Try and get somebody to the high slot just to give you more options. They do a good job of fronting pucks and getting in lanes, so if you can try and get a pass from any way, and if you can play it off the end wall or what we did today finally get someone in the high slot and get something redirected on net, it’s what we’re going to have to do. it worked out in our favor and it ended up being a good goal.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Stars’ game play during game four was their ability to shut down the front of the net and keep the Marlies from potentially connecting on dangerous plays, especially at the end of the game.

“That’s just gonna be our mentality,” said Heatherington. “We’ve got bigger guys, and our strength is one of our advantages so we’re going to use that. We’re going to keep that going.”

While the Stars’ power-play has also been a huge difference-maker in this series for them, it appeared on its second chance of the night that the Marlies may have just finally foiled Texas’ extra-man success. This is definitely something to watch headed into Game Five.

In what has been an all-out battle from the first puck drop of the series, this was another game where teams had to fight for every second of puck possession, and the tightness of the series was echoed by Keefe after the game.

“Today, it’s an unfortunate bounce – they shoot a puck, it hits a shin pad that bounces up in the air and it lands on the stick of their best scorer. We get a power play – for us, our first power play – we move it around quite good, we hit the post and it stays out. That’s the margin of difference. That’s where you’re at right now in a series like this. Some bounces go your way one night, some nights they don’t. In game three we find a way to get a point shot that finds its way through. That’s how slim the difference is between the two teams here at this point.”

Game Five is Saturday at H-E-B Center, with puck drop set for just after 7 p.m. CT.

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