Sometimes the most important goals are the ugly ones. You won't see them on a highlight reel, but they might just help win a tight, physical Calder Cup Playoff game.
The Texas Stars rode three such goals and hung on to win 4-2 over the Rockford IceHogs in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals at HEB Center at Cedar Park on Friday night. In their third Conference Finals berth in their nine-year history, the Stars got off to a good start, leading the series 1-0 after the victory.
"We're not pretty, but we get it done," Stars head coach Derek Laxdal said after the win. "Tonight, we just did what we do best; we grinded, and we were resilient."
Curtis McKenzie, Roope Hintz, Remi Elie, and Sheldon Dries all scored, while starting goaltender Mike McKenna made 32 saves on 34 Rockford shots for the Game 1 win. It was the first loss for the away club in the entire 2018 playoffs (7-0 beforehand).
"It's a big win. They've got a very good hockey club, and they've been on a great run," Laxdal said. "They skate well, they move the puck well, they've got a great back end."
The Texas Stars are 7-1 all-time in a postseason series when winning Game 1. Getting a leg ahead will be beneficial for the Pacific Division champions.
"That's Game 1, it's in the books, now our job is to just get ready," Laxdal said. "First game is under the belt, now we move forward."
Texas rolled with mostly the same lineup as their prior postseason wins, and energy of the Stars' top line was on full display early in the first period. McKenzie cashed in on a rebound goal when the Texas captain, Justin Dowling, and Travis Morin used their speed to crash the net and pressure the Rockford goaltender.
With the net ajar in the scrum around IceHogs starter Collin Delia, the referee behind the play signaled for a good goal. It was the seventh time in the 2018 postseason that Texas got on the board first, and it was McKenzie's third goal of the playoffs.
As Remi Elie was charged with a tripping penalty, the Stars' penalty kill went to work, but failed to prevent Rockford defenseman Carl Dahlstrom from flipping a puck past McKenna and through for the equalizer with just three seconds left on the man-advantage. The IceHogs entered the game with the AHL's best power play in the postseason, converting on 37.5% of opportunities.
"I thought we did a great job [on the penalty kill], we just missed a read there," Laxdal said. "We know what they're gonna be, and they're gonna come with a great push on Sunday, we gotta be ready to rise to the challenge."
Luckily for the Stars and the HEB Center crowd of 6,150, the scoreboard read "1-1" for only 78 seconds. Former first round NHL Entry Draft pick Denis Gurianov nailed linemate Roope Hintz with a home run pass from his own blueline, with Hintz depositing the breakaway feed and restoring the Stars' lead.
The chemistry between the two youthful forwards has been a focal point of Laxdal's offense for the majority of the season. "They've got great speed. To make that play, and to make it tape-to-tape, and to make it at full speed just shows you the NHL talent there."
In the second, a botched clearing attempt led to an icing and a subsequent faceoff in the Texas defensive zone. Rockford won the draw, and after a tricky bounce to the right of McKenna, Chris DiDomenico ripped one into the back of the Stars net and leveled the game at two.
DiDomenico has paced the previously unbeaten IceHogs in points during their monstrous playoff run, and tallied a goal and an assist in the game. His postseason total sits at 13 points on five goals and eight assists, tops in the league.
Remi Elie was having none of that. To copy the Dahlstrom goal, the speedy forward netted a power play goal on the third rebound attempt of the initial point shot with three seconds left on the power play. It took just over four minutes in the mid-second period for the Stars to once again restore the one-goal lead.
Elie was part of an electric line that featured Dries and former first-round pick Jason Dickinson. "[Elie] look engaged tonight, I thought that whole line did tonight with Dries and Dickinson," says Laxdal. "I really like that line, they were a good line for us in the Tucson series."
The third period was an effort in conservation and survival for Texas. Rockford activated a three-man forecheck and started pressuring the Stars' defensemen to force bad passes up the boards and get into shoving matches along the glass.
The effort backfired when IceHogs forward Lance Bouma hooked Stars defenseman Matt Mangene in the Texas defensive zone. The Stars were unsuccessful on the following power play, but Sheldon Dries scored on a backhand shot immediately after the man-advantage. The rush developed just as the penalty to Bouma expired and made the game 4-2 in favor of the Stars.
For the third time in the game, the Stars scored a fluky goal on a weird, unusual bounce. Nevertheless, that's a way to win in itself. "That's playoff hockey. There's not gonna be too many pretty goals at this point in time, everybody's playing tight," Dickinson told media. "That's what it's gonna take; going to the net and getting a greasy one or two."
From there, the Stars rode the solid play in the blue paint from McKenna, whose sustained veteran excellence has been invaluable for the young Stars squad. In 10 postseason games to date, Texas has been outshot nine times, but the 35-year-old has held tight.
Dickinson nearly potted an empty-netter, but the Stars wouldn't need it, hanging on and winning 4-2 to take a 1-0 lead in the series. "We know we can compete, we know we can play at any time with any team, and no matter what the pressure brings, we can fight through it," Dickinson says.
The Stars are now 8-2 overall in the postseason, including a current run of five consecutive victories. They have only lost in regulation once since March 30, that coming in Game 2 of their first round series against the Ontario Reign.
The Stars return to the ice at HEB Center on Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. for Game 2 of the series. A potential Game 2 win from the Stars guarantees at least one more game this season in Cedar Park.