CEDAR PARK, Texas – The Texas Stars and Rockford IceHogs each entered Saturday knowing they could clinch a playoff spot with a win and a little help. They both received the help, so who would win and claim their spot in the playoffs?
The Stars and IceHogs each entered the game sitting in fourth in their respective divisions, and both knew a win and a loss by the team behind them would clinch a playoff spot.
For Rockford, it was Milwaukee that needed to lose, and the Admirals did fall 5-1 to Chicago, but the game ended after the Texas/Rockford game.
The Stars, on the other hand, knew when the puck dropped that their help had already been received. Texas needed Stockton to lose to have a chance to clinch, and the Heat fell 7-3 to San Jose in an afternoon affair.
The game would be an up and down affair for the Stars, who would score first, but then find themselves in need of a third period rally to win. After Brent Regner had scored a power-play goal in the first, the IceHogs would score three straight, one in the first and two in the second, to take a 3-1 lead through 40 minutes.
The Stars would not go quietly, however, and fed off the energy provided by the home crowd inside the H-E-B Center to fuel their rally. The Stars would tie the game on goals by Brian Flynn 2:40 into period three, and Roope Hintz at 13:47, before finding a late winner on a two-on-one. Travis Morin would feed rookie Joel L’Esperance for the goal that would send Texas to the playoffs.
The game started well for Texas, as the Stars came out ready play from the start. They would control possession for the first five minutes, and 5:15 in were given a power play when Rockford’s Chris DiDomenico was called for slashing.
The Stars would not need long to capitalize on their man advantage, as just 36 seconds into the power play Texas would grab the game’s first goal. Gavin Bayreuther had the puck along the blueline and found Regner open along the far boards. Regner patiently waited and slid into an open area in the faceoff circle. He wound up a slung a wrist shot on goal that tipped off the edge of the glove of Rockford netminder Matt Tomkins and fluttered into the net. Bayreuther would receive the loan assist, and Regner’s PPG made it 1-0 Stars 5:51 into the game.
Rockford would fight back, however, and would even the score just under 90 seconds before the first intermission. The goal would come off of a broken play and would set the tone for the next 21:30 of play. A centering pass was deflected, and the puck bounced around in the slot. Tyler Sikura found the puck within a crowd of bodies and fired a screened shot that eluded Landon Bow and slipped into the net. The time of the goal was 18:31 of the first, and would send the game to the second level at one.
The middle frame would see the Stars outshoot Rockford 15-9 in the period, but it was the IceHogs who continued to have puck luck. It would start under five minutes into period two, and once again it would be Sikura who found twine. This time he received the puck along the half-boards, and quickly turned and whipped a hopeful shot on goal. Bow seemed surprised by the decision to shoot, and the puck had glanced off the post and into the net before he could react. His third goal of the weekend, and 22nd of the year, gave Rockford a 2-1 lead with 15:31 left in the period.
The IceHogs were not done in the second, and they would double their advantage exactly 7:00 later. As luck would have it this one would come off a broken play as well, as a good defensive play would end up backfiring on the Stars. Luke Johnson was in Gretzky’s office behind the net, looking for a passing option, and found Anthony Louis with space in the slot. Louis wasted no time and ripped a one-timer that Reece Scarlett was able to block, but the puck ricocheted directly to Alexandre Fortin. Bow was left completely off balance by the unfortunate bounce, and Fortin found twine to give Rockford a 3-1 edge after two periods of play.
The Stars could easily have been disheartened by the way the second had unfolded, and some teams would have simply been unable to regain their composure and fight back. Not Texas. The Stars have been resilient all year, and Saturday night was no exception.
The Stars did not take long to start their rally, as just 2:40 into the period the Rockford lead would be cut to one. It would be Flynn with the honors, as he came flying into the zone and blasted a slap shot that tipped off a defenders stick, and knuckled past the Blocker of Tomkins and into the net to cut the score to 3-2.
The Stars would press for the equalizer for over half a period, but 11:00 later the anxiety would be relieved. Bayreuther would provide his second assist of the night as he spied Hintz at the blueline, and wired a tape-to-tape pass to him. Hintz took the puck and used his speed to get around the corner and behind the Rockford defense, then quickly lifted a shot just under the crossbar to tie the game with 6:13 to play in regulation.
You could have been forgiven for assuming the game would go to overtime, as the Stars had been to OT in four of their previous five games, and have set a team-record with 26 games going past 60 minutes in 2017-18. On this night, however, the drama would occur early.
With under three minutes to play the Stars were able to get a two-on-one, as the veteran Morin and rookie L’Esperance skated into the Rockford zone. Morin waited for a passing lane to open, then sent the puck to L’Esperance. Playing his sixth game since signing with Texas after his college season, the rookie from Michigan Tech let the shot go and watched it sail into the back of the net. L’Esperance sent the H-E-B Center into a frenzy, and celebrated his first professional point with over 6,800 elated Stars fans.
The IceHogs would try to respond over the final few minutes, but Bow and the Stars defense stood tall. The final seconds ticked away, and as the horn sounded the Stars and their faithful celebrated a playoff birth.
With the win the Stars move to 36-24-8-5 (85 points, .582 pts%), clinch a playoff spot, and move within .003 of third-place San Diego (.585). The Stars have three games remaining to try to catch the Gulls, all three of which are in the Lone Star State. Texas will host the defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins on Wednesday, then close the regular season with a home-and-home set with I-35 rival San Antonio Friday and Saturday. The action on Wednesday will begin at 7:30 CT in Cedar Park.
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