Roope Hintz nearly fell over as a sea of green jerseys rushed toward him.
The rookie’s goal with 8.5 seconds left in overtime Monday night gave Texas a 2-1 win against the Rockford IceHogs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, clinching the series and sending the Stars to the Calder Cup Finals for the third time in franchise history.
“The last goal exemplifies the group that we are — we’re resilient,” head coach Derek Laxdal said. “We’re not a fancy team, we’re going to grind it out. There’s not much else you can say. Our guys have been warriors all through the playoffs.”
Sheldon Dries opened the scoring with his team-leading seventh goal of the postseason in the second period. Rockford tied the game with under two minutes to go after pulling its goalie. It was the 37th game between the regular and postseason for Texas.
The Stars will face off with the Toronto Marlies in the Calder Cup Finals.
The first two games of the series will be Saturday and Sunday in Toronto, with puck drop set for 3 p.m. Game 3 will be Tuesday at 7 p.m. and Game 4 will take place Thursday at 7 p.m. at the HEB Center.
Stars goalie Mike McKenna stopped 38 of the 39 shots he faced to pick up his 11th win of the postseason. His 1.97 goals against average ranks second among netminders with at least 10 appearances in the postseason and he’s tied for the playoff lead with two shutouts.
“We’re going to the finals, I don’t think you could feel any better,” McKenna said. “We’ve battled all year long and haven’t had anything handed to us. We earned it tonight.”
Texas won the first three games of the best-of-seven series against the IceHogs, with Game 2 and Game 3 ending in overtime. Rockford came back with a pair of home wins last Thursday and Friday at home to force a Game 6 in Cedar Park.
“It’s been a special group from day one,” Laxdal said. “The guys are a family and they play for each other. That’s hard to get. But that’s what you try to do when you build a team. We’re going to enjoy this for a day, but we’ve got some work to do to get ready for Toronto.”
The Stars had their chances in the first period. Dries caught the puck in mid-air and dropped in before getting shot off, but it was saved midway through the frame. Rockford goalie Jeff Glass was forced to dive out of his net after the Stars forecheck pounced on a loose puck late in the period.
Texas came out of the gates firing in the second and had 11 of the first 15 shots in the period, but Rockford fought back and finished with five of the last six shots.
The lone shot was Dries’ goal, which bounced off a stick and tricked down Glass’ back and in.
Rockford went on the offensive in the third, outshooting Texas 15-6 in the period. McKenna continued to hold the line until the IceHogs pulled their goalie with under two minutes left and scored on the 6-on-5 advantage.
Texas outshot Rockford 11-4 in overtime until Hintz scored his third postseason goal late on.
A Travis Morin check dislodged the boards and caused a delay late in the second period and the physicality of the game was ever-present. But neither team was called for a penalty the entire game.
“It’s been a couple years since I’ve been a part of one of those, but credit to the refs,” McKenna said. “There wasn’t anything too egregious out there and they let us play the game. That’s what we want as players.”
The Marlies were the best team in the AHL in the regular season, finishing with 54 wins, seven more than the second-place finisher. They’ve won 11 games in the playoffs, including a four-game sweep of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Texas is full of players with playoff and Calder Cup Finals experience, including a trio who won it all with the Stars in 2014.
McKenna was to the Syracuse Crunch before the playoffs last season and helped them get all the way to the finals before losing to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
This season is different.
“When you get that close, you get even hungrier and that’s the way I feel,” McKenna said.