CEDAR PARK, TX – The Texas Stars and Rockford IceHogs will face off in the Western Conference Final, battling for a spot in the 2018 Calder Cup Finals.
Texas comes into the series on a four-game winning streak, having eliminated Tucson in five after falling in overtime in game one. The Stars and Roadrunners needed more than 60 minutes to find a winner in three of the four contests, with the Stars claiming victory in two of the three. The two overtime wins came in critical games for Texas, with Sheldon Dries scoring to grab a series lead in game three, and Joel L’Esperance tickling the twine to end the series in game five.
It will be the Stars’ third appearance in the West Final and their first since the 2014 postseason when they defeated the Toronto Marlies in seven games on the way to claiming the Calder Cup. Texas also advanced in its other trip to the Western Conference Final, eliminating the Hamilton Bulldogs in seven before losing in six to the Hershey Bears in the 2010 Calder Cup Finals.
The IceHogs enter their third series of the playoffs on an impressive seven-game winning streak, having swept both the Chicago Wolves and Manitoba Moose in the first and second round, respectively. Both of these sweeps came as a shock to the hockey world, as Chicago had finished the regular season in first place in the Central Division before dropping three straight to the number four seed, and Manitoba had been seen as the team to beat for the majority of the season.
Everything has clicked for this Rockford team at just the right time. Its power play is lighting the lamp at an extremely impressive 37.5%, and it has had the second-most chances on the man advantage. The IceHogs penalty kill is also the best of any team remaining in the playoffs, fighting off the other team 92.9% of the time.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for the IceHogs has been the performance of goaltender Collin Delia, who in seven games has posted a 1.64 goals against average and 0.948 save percentage. Delia, who began the season with the ECHL’s Indy Fuel, has played so well head coach Jeremy Colliton has not even glanced the way of Jeff Glass or J.F. Berube, both of whom also saw time in net for the Chicago Blackhawks this season.
This is the first time in franchise history that the IceHogs have made it out of the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Their most recent trip to the second round was in the 2014-15 season, when the IceHogs lost four games to one to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Texas and Rockford are meeting in the playoffs for the third time, with each squad claiming a first-round sweep of the other. In 2010 the Stars swept the IceHogs in four games during their run to the Calder Cup Finals. Rockford got revenge in 2015 when it swept Texas in three games before to Grand Rapids.
Final Regular Season Records
Texas Stars: 38-24-8-6, 90 points, .592 pts% (2nd in Pacific Division, 5th in Western Conference)
Rockford IceHogs: 40-28-4-4, 88 points, .579 pts% (4th in Central Division, 7th in Western Conference)
Eastern Conference Semifinals Results
Texas Stars: Defeated one seed Tucson Roadrunners 4-1.
- Game 1: Stars 1 @ Roadrunners 2 F/OT
- Game 2: Stars 4 @ Roadrunners 1 F
- Game 3: Roadrunners 4 @ Stars 5 F/OT
- Game 4: Roadrunners 0 @ Stars 2 F
- Game 5: Roadrunners 2 @ Stars 3 F/OT
Rockford IceHogs: Defeated three seed Manitoba Moose 4-0.
- Game 1: IceHogs 4 @ Moose 2 F
- Game 2: IceHogs 4 @ Moose 1 F
- Game 3: Moose 1 @ IceHogs 4 F
- Game 4: Moose 3 @ IceHogs 6 F
Game 1 – Friday, May 18 – Rockford at TEXAS 7 p.m. CT
Game 2 – Sunday, May 20 – Rockford at TEXAS 5 p.m. CT
Game 3 – Tuesday, May 22 – Texas at ROCKFORD 7 p.m. CT
Game 4 – Thursday, May 24 – Texas at ROCKFORD 7 p.m. CT
*Game 5 – Friday, May 25 – Texas at ROCKFORD 7 p.m. CT
*Game 6 – Monday, May 28 -Rockford at TEXAS 7 p.m. CT
*Game 7 – Tuesday, May 29 – Rockford at TEXAS 7 p.m. CT
*=> If Necessary
Season Series Recap
The Stars were 1-2-0-1 against the IceHogs during the 2017-18 campaign, losing both games in Rockford before picking up three of four points in a crucial late weekend set in Cedar Park. The weekend was capped off with a comeback win to clinch a playoff spot with a week to play.
Gavin Bayreuther led the Texas attack during the season series, accumulating five points (2G, 3A) in four games. Tyler Kelleher also had success against Rockford this season, albeit with the Milwaukee Admirals. Kelleher had six points (3G, 3A) in five games for the Admirals against the IceHogs. He did not score in his only appearance against Rockford for Texas.
Landon Bow defended the Texas net in three of the four against Rockford, going 1-1-1 with a 3.27 goals against average and a save percentage of .877. Mike McKenna will be the Texas starter during the series, and he made one appearance against Rockford in the regular season. He was 0-1-0 with a 2.00 goals against and a .927 save percentage.
While the IceHogs struggled during the regular season to score power-play goals against many of their opponents, they were 33.3% against the Stars scoring on four of 12 chances.
Cody Franson, Matthew Highmore, and Anthony Louis made up Rockford’s three-pronged attack during the regular season, with each player recording one goal and three assists against the Stars. Out of the 14 goals the IceHogs scored during the season series, only Tyler Sikura (3) and Luc Snuggerud (2) tallied more than one goal.
Presumed playoff starter Delia was in net for both of the IceHogs’ wins against the Stars, posting a 1.44 GAA and 0.952 SV% in those two games, extremely similar to the stats he has been putting up in the postseason for Rockford. Rockford’s only loss came with Matt Tomkins in net, but he will not figure into this team’s postseason play.
- Dec 2: Stars 2 @ IceHogs 6 F
- Feb 28: Stars 1 @ IceHogs 2 F
- Apr 6: IceHogs 3 @ Stars 2 F/SO
- Apr 7: IceHogs 3 @ Stars 4 F
How Texas Wins
The Stars come in as the higher seed and with home ice advantage, but this seems like a 50/50 series at the start. Both teams have been on a roll in the postseason, led by top-notch play from the men between the pipes. McKenna will need to out duel IceHogs goaltender Delia if the Stars are to win the series.
McKenna has been exceptional so far in the playoffs, showing the form which guided the Syracuse Crunch to the Calder Cup Finals a year ago. He sits second in the AHL with a .952 save percentage and is fourth with a goals-against average of 1.65. He has been almost impossible to beat with the lead on the line, as he kept Tucson from taking the lead at any point over the final four games of the series. In fact, the Roadrunner goal in overtime of game one is the only goal McKenna has allowed with the Stars tied or behind since game two of the Pacific Semifinal against the Reign.
The Stars will also need to help McKenna by playing disciplined hockey and staying out of the penalty box. The Roadrunners were able to get under the Stars skin at times in the series but were unable to make the Stars consistently pay for their transgressions. Rest assured Rockford will try to do the exact same thing, but Texas must not take the bait. The IceHogs have had a blistering power play in the playoffs, converting a staggering 37.5% of the time, 16.4% ahead of their nearest competitor.
This is going to be a tightly fought low scoring series, in which the little things will make all the difference. If the Stars continue to get airtight goaltending from McKenna, and can limit the effectiveness of the IceHogs special teams, then a third trip to the Calder Cup Finals will become a reality.
How Rockford Wins
While on paper it may appear this is Texas’ series to lose, the reality is the IceHogs are looking almost unbeatable at this point in the playoffs. They have pulled off two huge upsets (in sweeps nonetheless!) to get to the third round for the first time ever, and they do not show signs of stopping anytime soon. The reload from the Chicago Blackhawks near playoff time did do some good, but this team is continuing to be led by the core which has brought it success all season.
Delia needs to keep playing at the level he has been all playoffs. He has faced an average of 36 shots per game, and allows 1.64 of those in the net. He has been a major factor in his team’s ability to pull off a playoff win even when being out shot, and the IceHogs will need to continue to receive this level of play from him.
On the flip side, this IceHogs team needs to stem the flow of shots Delia has been facing. While he appears to be more than equipped to handle them, you do not want to tire your goalie out before the season is over.
Rockford’s special teams play has been the other major key to its postseason success. Not only has it been clicking along at an extremely impressive rate, but the IceHogs have also been able to force their opposition into taking untimely penalties. An example of this is the penalty in the third overtime period it drew against the Chicago Wolves, which allowed the IceHogs to score on the man advantage for the game and series victory.
To make it to the Calder Cup Finals, the IceHogs need to continue to force the Stars into taking untimely penalties, all the while continuing to get success on the man advantage from Chris DiDomenico (2 power-play goals, 6 power-play assists), Victor Ejdsell (2 PPG, 3 PPA), Adam Clendening (1 PPG, 8 PPA), Franson (4 PPG, 4 PPA) and Sikura (3 PPG, 1 PPA). Having so many players with such high power play production figures is something which should lend well to a longer run for the IceHogs.