Stars Staying Above Water in AHL's Toughest Division
By: Joshua RussellJan 30, 2018
The Pacific Division playoff race is officially heating up, and the Texas Stars are in the thick of it midway through the 2017-18 season.
Texas currently sits second in the Pacific Division but can’t afford to rest on their laurels as every team in the division is over .500 and one loss can knock you out of one of the four playoff spots. The Pacific is the only division in the AHL where every participant owns a winning record.
"Right now, you just have to prepare for every game. One game at a time," said head coach Derek Laxdal. "It's a sprint to the finish now for the playoffs. So every divisional game is huge."
Though the Stars are at the midway point of the season, this team has seen a season’s worth of excitement.
The season got off to a wild start as Texas hosted the Chicago Wolves for a two-game tilt. Both games ended in 6-5 affairs with the second matchup concluding with 18 seconds left in overtime on a breakaway goal from Jason Dickinson.
Texas has given the home crowd plenty of nail-biting action this season as 14 of the team’s 20 home games have been decided by a goal. Of those 14 games, ten went into overtime and two ended in a shootout. The Stars are taking advantage of these tight affairs as they sport a 12-1-1-1 record at home in one-goal games and 16-2-4-2 overall. Both of those are the best marks in the AHL.
The Stars also own the league’s best overtime record at 9-4. Their nine overtime wins are a new franchise record, and the 17 overtime games Texas has played this season are two shy of tying the franchise mark of 19, set back in 2014-15.
"We're a team that competes every night, has a lot of will, and never says die," added Laxdal. "You look at the overtime situations, late games tying it up, a good group of guys that play for each other and you've seen that in some of the results. We're finding our way here. Our goaltenders are growing. Some of our young players are growing."
On November 13th, Curtis McKenzie was named the fifth team captain in team history. The gritty winger has delivered as one of the league’s best with 21 goals this season. His 41 points are second on the team and tied for fifth overall. McKenzie’s impact season led to his first career All-Star selection in the AHL.
McKenzie isn’t the only one grabbing headlines this season for the Stars. Travis Morin continues to show why he has been one of the AHL’s top players in his career. The only man to skate in all nine seasons the Stars have existed is the top assist man in the league with 37 this year. His 43 points are tied for the top spot in the league overall, and on December 27th he became the 92nd player in AHL history to register 500 points in his career. The milestone moment came after an assist on a McKenzie goal against the rival San Antonio Rampage. He would go on to register his 500th point as a Texas Star on January 3rd.
"Both of those guys say all the right things in the room," said Laxdal of his two veteran forwards. "So, our young guys are very lucky to have two leaders like that in the dressing room that help them establish the foundation for their careers. So we're going to count heavily on those two guys moving forward."
At the opposite end of the ice, 11-year veteran Mike McKenna and rookie Landon Bow have brought some stability to the goaltending department as both players have settled into an even rotation from Laxdal.
After McKenna started 10 of the first 12 games for the Stars this season, Bow took the reins and started 16 of the team’s following 18 contests. The rookie goaltender has started to find his goove in net with 15 wins, a 2.81 goals against average and a .905 save percentage – all in the top-five among AHL rookies.
Since Christmas, both goaltenders have split the net evenly and provided the Stars with the goaltending they have needed to compete in the division. Bow has given up two goals or less in five of his last seven games, plus recorded his first career AHL shutout on January 19th at Manitoba. McKenna is 3-2-2 in his last seven games with a 2.13 goals against average and a .931 save percentage over that stretch.
Along with McKenna, other new faces the Stars added during the summer offseason have had their impact on Texas like veteran Brian Flynn, who is currently third on the team in points (25) and power play points (10) despite missing five games this year.
Roope Hintz is a former second-round pick of the Dallas Stars and playing his first full season in North America after coming over from Finland this summer. He had his first career two-goal game on January 19th against Manitoba and is third on the team with 13 goals.
It won’t come easy in the hyper-competitive Pacific Division, but the Stars are in a prime position for a playoff spot with 30 games remaining in the season. Sixteen of the team’s remaining games will be played on home ice, including nine of the last 14 games of the season when things start to reach the finish line, and 18 of their remaining games are against the Central Division, whom the Stars have a 12-2-0-0 record against this year.
"I think our group has done a really good job of understanding we have to comfortable playing in a 1-0 game or a 2-1 game or a 3-2 game," said Laxdal. "You're not going to score five or six goals every night, and I think the leaders are doing a great job of selling the message."