CEDAR PARK, Texas – The race for the final playoff spot in the American Hockey League’s Central Division could not be closer as the Texas Stars head to Iowa for a pair of games this weekend.
Texas claimed a 3-2 victory over the Manitoba Moose on Wednesday, bringing them back into a tie for fourth in the Central. The game was close throughout and entered the final frame even at a goal each, but Manitoba quickly made things tense when they grabbed a 2-1 lead five minutes in.
The Stars responded quickly as just 2:31 later, Nicholas Caamano got the crowd and the team going with an altercation after the whistle that led to matching minors being called. Texas used the open ice to flip the script on Manitoba as Michael Mersch and Dillon Heatherington scored 34 seconds apart while four-on-four to take a 3-2 edge. The Stars’ defense locked it down from there, and two points went to the home squad.
The Stars had come into the game in need of points in the jam-packed race for the Central’s final playoff spot. They entered the night tied with the Milwaukee Admirals and one point behind the Rockford IceHogs and Manitoba Moose. That flipped on Wednesday night, though, with the Texas win over Manitoba and Milwaukee knocked off Rockford, it gave the Stars and Admirals with 73 points, the Moose and IceHogs had 72. Four teams within one point is tight enough as is, but it gets even more constricted when you take games played and points percentage into account:
When you look at points percentage, the two teams tied slightly ahead of the other two are Milwaukee and Manitoba. This comes thanks to those two having played one fewer game than Texas and Rockford respectively thus far. No matter how you slice it, though, this race looks destined to be one to remember.
The Moose have the most potential points left in front of them, with nine games and 18 total points up for grabs. Texas, on the other hand, has the fewest as just 14 points are available with seven games to play. That said, a breakdown of the schedule shows that the Stars have a much more favorable road down the stretch than the other three contenders.
Texas has a combined record of 16-5-1-1 against its final three opponents, Iowa, Rockford, and San Antonio. That is a lofty points percentage of .739. By comparison, Rockford has a percentage of .538 (25-21-2-4), Milwaukee .525 (16-14-8-2), and Manitoba .457 (9-11-3-0), against the teams left ahead of them.
There are only four games left that feature a clash of two of the participants and all involve Rockford. The IceHogs travel to Cedar Park for two against the Stars on April 5 and 6, while they face the Admirals once on each side’s pond over the final four days of the season. Rockford is 2-2-1-1 against Texas (Texas is 4-2-0-0) in the season series, and 4-5-0-1 against Milwaukee (Milwaukee is 6-1-3-0).
The Stars have a trip to Iowa before returning home to face the IceHogs, with games against the Wild at 7 CT on Friday and Saturday night. Texas boasts a 5-0-0-1 record against Iowa on the year, but four of those wins came in the four games inside the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park. Both previous meetings in Des Moines have needed more than 60 minutes, with Iowa claiming a shootout win and Texas an overtime triumph.
The Stars will go into the weekend without Landon Bow, who has been the mainstay in net during his time at the AHL level this season. Bow, who is 24-15-5 (2.89 GAA, .893 SV%) in 46 games with Texas, was recalled to Dallas on Thursday morning. This hands the reigns to the very capable Philippe Desrosiers, who has been great when called upon this season. He hasn’t always received the goal support that Bow has from his teammates, leading to his record of just 7-11-1, despite a goals against of 2.57 and save percentage of .909. He is 2-0 in two starts against the Wild, allowing just three total goals (1.48 GAA, .955 SV%).
Ready and waiting on the bench should the Stars need him will be rookie netminder Jake Oettinger. Oettinger joined Texas this week after completing his collegiate career at Boston University and signing a three-year, two-way contract with Dallas. He was the Stars’ first-round pick in 2017 (26th overall) and is coming off a 16-16-4 senior season in which he posted a goals against of 2.45 and a save percentage of .926. He will likely only be seen sparingly down the stretch, with Desrosiers shouldering the load during the playoff race, but he adds another quality tender to an already deep Stars system.
With the race this close, every point is going to be critical down the stretch for Texas, but it all starts with the two this weekend in Iowa. If the Stars can take care of business they will be in good shape, as they then return to Texas to close the year with four of the last five games at home, where they are 22-9-2-1 on the year. The other game is in San Antonio.
You can keep up with the Stars in Des Moines this weekend, as well as all through the remainder of the regular season and playoffs, by following us on Twitter. Simply follow @SinBinStars for our Texas take, and @SinBinNews for all your AHL, ECHL, and SPHL news and notes.