May 22 2014 02:09PM
"I've always believed that there's a fine line between cockiness and confidence, and we want to remain confident, but not cross over". These were the words of Steve Spott yesterday morning, as the team practiced at home for the last time before heading to Cedar Park, Texas to play the first game of the AHL's Western Conference Finals.
They're going in 7-0. Not bad for a team that wasn't expected to make the playoffs at all. But their new opponent is without a doubt, the toughest one yet.
Who Are The Stars?
For the first time in these playoffs, the Marlies face a team that actually started in the American Hockey League, though their history is pretty complicated. The franchise began in 1999 as the Louisville Panthers, bringing hockey to the fine people of Kentucky using Florida prospects. It was a run that lasted just two years, but involved players like Roberto Luongo and Dan Boyle.
The franchise started back in 2005 as the Iowa Stars, this time becoming affiliated with the Dallas Stars. Their on-ice success was bipolar, making the playoffs in their first two years but winning just 35 games in 2007/08. Dallas gave up their affiliation, stating that they were planning on working with an aspiring ownership group in their home state once an arena was built.
The Stars then became the Iowa Chops, affiliating themselves with the Anaheim Ducks and using an angry pig as a logo. The Chops fared just as bad on the ice, going 33-33-4-10 and missing the playoffs again. Even worse, however, was the fact that ownership was suspended from the AHL for using the team as collateral in a loan. The Ducks severed ties as well, leaving the team with bad ownership and no affiliate.
To bring things full circle, the Texas Stars ownership group that Dallas had left for took advantage of the dormant club and purchased them. The team has been in Cedar Rapids ever since.
In the five years that followed, the Stars have made the playoffs four out of five times, exceeding 90 points in all of those years. The most notable year was their first, where they lost to the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Finals.
What Have They Done For Me Lately?
"We know how good they are. They're the #1 team in the league, and we're an underdog. Let's not kid ourselves, we're an underdog and I sound like Bruce (Boudreau, Anaheim Ducks coach), but we definitely understand that." that's half a quote from Steve Spott, and it's more or less the truth here.
Texas was at the top of the league in a lot of things during the regular season. Most importantly, they lead the league in points with 106, but also tied for the lead in wins, had the fewest losses, were second in goals for, seventh in goals against, and took the fewest penalty minutes in the league. Here's a tale of the tape between the two clubs:
The most gifted player on the Stars roster is Travis Morin. Not only does he lead the Stars in playoff points (10 in 9), but he also lead the entire AHL in points in the regular season scoring 32 goals and 56 assists in 66 games. Granted, shooting at 14.3% over 224 shots is probably a bit lucky, but the 30 year old's ability to impact the game this year is undeniable.
The last time the Marlies were put against a player so high in the scoring charts in a playoff series was Cory Conacher in the 2011/12 Calder Cup Finals. The Norfolk Admirals as a whole were overwhelmingly good, but despite shutting him down being that roster's focus, he still put up a goal and 5 assists in four games.
Also worth watching out for are Mike Hedden (9 PTS in 9 GP in the playoffs, 55 in 74 regular season), defenceman Derek Meech (8 PTS in 9 GP / 17 in 36), and Curtis McKenzie (7 in 9, 65 in 75).
In terms of well known prospects, the Stars have Scott Glennie, who has been disappointing since being drafted 8th overall in 2009 (immediately after Nazem Kadri) and has produced at a half point-per-game pace throughout the year, Radek Faksa (12th overall 2012), who started the playoffs with no points in his first 8 games, but scored a pair against Grand Rapids in his last game, and Brett Ritchie (44th overall, 2011), who recently returned from a late season injury and has scored in his own game so far.
With Jack Campbell injured, the Stars will be going with Cristopher Nilstorp in net. The 30 year old Swede has supplemented a solid regular season with a superb playoffs, posting a 0.934 save percentage on 137 shots over six games. This had lead to a 5-1 record with a 1.68 GAA, certainly something that Toronto will be looking to cut into.
Behind the bench for the Stars is Willie Desjardins. Desjardins has a long coaching history, having started as an assistant coach at the University of Calgary in 1985. He eventually became their head coach, before trying his luck in Japan. He briefly coached the WHL's Saskatoon Blades in 1997, but then switched again to be the assistant coach of the Canadian Men's National Team.
His first long term role at a higher level was coaching the Medicine Hat Tigers from 2002/03 to 2009/10, in which his team made the playoffs in every year and won two WHL championships. Eventually, he made the jump to the NHL and became an associate coach for Dallas. Currently, he's in his second season of being the Texas Stars' head coach. There are rumours that Desjardins is a candidate for the Head Coaching job with the Vancouver Canucks.
The Season Series?
The Stars and Marlies faced each other four times in the regular season, splitting the season series.
The first matchup was in Toronto, a Sunday evening game in November that ended up as a 3-2 shootout win for Toronto. Jamie Devane and Korbinian Holzer scored Toronto's regulation goals, while Justin Dowling and McKenzie scored for Texas. Key moments in this game include the Marlies outshooting the Stars 17-4 in the second period, and the blue and white killing an overtime penalty to Jerry D'Amigo that lasted for nearly the entire final two minutes of extra play.
The second game was played a week later in Cedar Park, and was controlled by the stars. Ritchie, McKenzie, Chris Mueller, Morin, and Hedden scored for the Stars, while Spencer Abbott and Carter Ashton contributed for the Marlies. It was a pretty lopsided game overall, as the final shot count was a whopping 43-26 in favour of Texas.
Things got even worse on February 1st, as the two teams reconvened in Texas' home barn, and the Marlies got chased out of the building. The Stars took an obnoxious 49 shots on goal, limiting Toronto to just 19, including a 13-2 gap in the third period. The Marlies gave up 11 powerplays, a situation where Texas scored half its six goals.
The last matchup was hosted at the Air Canada Centre, a family day matinee in front of 11,000 fans. This one went 4-1 in favour of the Marlies, as Josh Leivo and Jerry D'Amigo both scored a pair, responding to Ritchie's opening goal late in the second period.
Keys To Victory?
- First and foremost, the Marlies absolutely need to close the shot gap that these two teams had in the season series. They only took 42.6% of the shots on goal over the course of those four games, which are some Leafs-esque numbers and aren't going to help you win. If you get rid of the second period of the first game, it drops to 39.1%.
- I wonder if Desjardins and his staff have been keying in closely on Toronto's special teams unit. Toronto's powerplay was just 1 for 14, not scoring until the third period of the fourth game (their last opportunity). That said, it's a unit that's very reliant on TJ Brennan, whose 13 shots on goal were about right for his typical four-game average (13.9). Also making me curious is the success of the Texas unit, which went 6 for 20 with a man advantage (30%). It may just be a small sample size, or it may be a reason to shake things up.
- With the last two points considered, Andrew MacWilliam's new "upper body" injury needs to be at 100% now. He practiced in full contact yesterday, but seemed to be on the "fourth pair". Spott has him in for Friday, but he's going to need to be good from start to finish.
- As I said in the other two series previews, this team can't put pressure on themselves to succeed. They've been thriving without it, and putting expectation on yourself to beat a well-oiled machine is a great way to make yourselves lose. To complete the half quote from Spott I mentioned a few paragraphs up: "..we've been underdogs since September 1st in this league. Nobody's given this team much of a chance, but they're peaking at the right time, and they've got a mindset that they believe they can be successful." At the same time, they can't be complacent; this hasn't exactly been the most dominant 7 game winning streak in the world.
- Having multiple lines of scoring presence is going to be more effective on a team like Texas than trying to stack up a top line that they can shut down. For this reason, it looks like they've kept the switch of Spencer Abbott and Sam Carrick from Game 4 against Chicago, which is probably for the best. Abbott will find more opportunities for McKegg and Leivo, while Carrick can focus on putting volume towards the net.
- Toronto needs to stay disciplined. Make no mistake, the gap between these two in penalty minutes isn't just fighting majors. Remove the scraps, and there's still a gap of 1269 to 698. Especially if special teams have been a concern against them, you can't give them the edge. While the Marlies can't radically change their game, a bit of caution is required.
- Goaltending is going to play a major factor in this series. MacIntyre needs to be better than his 0.908 he posted in the season series, but at the same time, he's due for a weak game or so with his 0.949 in the playoffs so far. Nilstorp was a 0.948 over three games, but between that and his current playoff performance, can we expect him to continue the pace? One, if not both, are likely to sputter at some point. It's a just a matter of who that may define the series.
- The Marlies can look at their 7-0 record in the playoffs and feel pretty hot. They can say they've won 10 of the past 11. But the reality is, the Stars are 19-3-1 in their past quarter season, and even with out that, have been pretty stellar. Even if you completely their 12-1-1 close to the regular season, they were on a 99 point pace. That's still tied for 4th overall. At the end of the day, this isn't a team to be treated lightly.
Photo courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com. Game 1 is at 8:30 tomorrow night.