CEDAR PARK, TEXAS – The Texas Stars hosted the Toronto Marlies for game three of the Calder Cup Final Tuesday, with the winner poised to take a two-games-to-one series edge.
The series shifted to Texas after the two sides split a pair of games in Toronto to open the series. Game one was an offensive explosion, and a 6-5 Marlies win, but the Stars then responded by coming out on top in a 2-1 defensive battle in game two. Game three in Texas was another low-scoring battle, as the squads appear to have settled into the defensive series that was expected coming in.
Shots were at a premium for a second straight game, as each side was more than willing to sacrifice their bodies to block shots. When the coverage did break down, both Mike McKenna of Texas and Garret Sparks of Toronto were able to keep the vast majority of chances out of the net. The two squads combined for all three goals in an active second period on Tuesday, but, for the third straight game in the series, the team who struck first went on to lose the game. Both sides came into the Final undefeated when scoring the opening goal in the 2018 playoffs.
The first period was a tame affair in which each side focused on building its game around defense. The period would end with shots 7-5 in favor of the visiting Marlies, and with neither team earning a power play opportunity. The best chance for either squad to score came with just seven seconds left in the frame when Travis Dermott was found open in the slot. It looked like the far post was open, but he tried to go near post and McKenna got just enough to send the puck wide. The horn sounded moments later, and the opening period came to a close scoreless.
The scoring started early in the middle frame, as just 55 seconds after the drop of the puck, Texas broke the ice. The goal came off the rush, as Remi Elie found Sheldon Dries shooting into the Toronto zone with speed. The rookie Dries found himself with time and space, and quickly moved to the near circle and released a shot before the Marlies defense could respond. The shot was a rocket that went screaming over the shoulder of Sparks and into the top corner of the net. The goal tied Dries with Stars captain Curtis McKenzie for the league lead with his eighth of the postseason and gave the home side a 1-0 advantage.
The Marlies were able to respond quickly, however, and just three minutes later the game was even at one. The goal was a beautiful display of both hard work and positioning, as Toronto was able to keep the play going in the corner until finding the opening to strike. Andreas Johnsson fell but was able to slide the puck to Ben Smith before returning to his skates and accepting a return feed. Chris Mueller saw Johnsson cutting forward to accept the pass and immediately cut behind the net to position himself for a potential shot. Johnsson spotted this and quickly wired the puck backdoor to Mueller, who deposited the game-tying goal before McKenna could get across his crease. Mueller’s fourth of the playoffs left the score level at one with 16:55 still to play in the middle stanza.
The Stars had a great chance to regain the lead a few minutes later when Elie found himself with possession behind the Marlies defense, but Sparks was equal to the challenge. The 25-year-old veteran netminder was able to track the puck visually, then knocked it away with a quick sprawling poke check. The play kept the game tied and gave his side the opportunity to take the lead themselves a short time later.
Toronto’s go-ahead tally came 12:28 into period two, as good puck movement created an open shot from the point. Pierre Engvall sent the puck along the end-boards behind the Texas net to Trevor Moore in the corner, who then spun and delivered the puck to Calle Rosen at the point. Rosen coasted to the top of the slot to open a lane through traffic, then whipped a seeing-eye shot on target that McKenna never saw. The puck found twine to put the Marlies up 2-1, and, though nobody knew it with 7:32 still left in the second, provide the eventual game-winner.
The Marlies took the 2-1 edge to the final period of play, where they were able to lock down the Stars to acquire the victory. Toronto outshot Texas 9-6 over the final 20 minutes, creating the better chances and forcing McKenna to make saves to keep the score within one. The best chance for the Stars to tie it came when Justin Dowling spun and whipped a low shot from the boards that McKenzie was able to redirect in tight, but the puck went sailing just wide. Texas killed the only penalty of the night in the final five minutes to give itself a chance to pull McKenna still down just one, but the extra man didn’t help on this occasion, and Toronto was able to secure a 2-1 victory in game three.
With the loss, the Stars see their six-game home winning streak come to an end and fall behind in a series for just the second time this postseason (one game to none to Tucson). Meanwhile, with the win, Toronto takes a two-games-to-one series lead in the Calder Cup Finals. Texas will have a chance to pull even on Thursday night, with game four set for 8 ET/7 CT in Cedar Park.
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