Stars stumble in return from road trip

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Returning home after playing six games in 12 days on the West Coast, the Stars were hoping to gain some momentum in their push for the playoffs.

Instead, they continued their recent string of results.

Texas fell for the seventh time in the last eight games, losing 5-2 to the Western Conference-leading Grand Rapids Griffins Saturday night at H-E-B Center.

“I thought we deserved better,” Stars head coach Derek Laxdal said. “I thought our guys played a hell of a game tonight start to finish. They have a good hockey club over there and they’re the best in the conference for a reason.”

Cole Ully scored his ninth goal of the season in the first period and Mark McNeill, who was acquired by Texas at the trade deadline, scored his seventh goal of the year, and first for the Stars, in his home debut.

Justin Peters has started all but one game for the Stars since beings acquired from the Tucson Roadrunners in early February and made a season-high 43 saves in the Stars’ 2-1 win in San Jose las Wednesday. He backed that up with a 25 save performance in his return to Texas.

For Grand Rapids, Jimmy Howard, the 2009 NHL Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Star for the Detroit Red Wings, made his third appearance for Grand Rapids this season since injuring his knee in February and made 31 saves in his second win of the year for the Griffins.

“You’ve got to respect him,” McNeill said. “He’s an experienced goalie. At the same time, we’ve got to play the same way and get bodies in front of the net and are his eyes away and keep trying to put it past them.”

Ugly got things started for the Stars just over six minutes in when he deflected Nick Ebert’s shot from the blue line. Ebert continues his hot streak with the assist, having tallied 11 points in the last 13 games. It was the 50th point of his professional career.

Grand Rapids and its high-powered offense, which is fourth in the league with 194 goals scored this year, evened things up quickly when Matthew Ford scored a power-play goal midway through the period. The Griffins boast the best power play in the AHL at 27.4 percent and are on pace to set a new franchise mark with a man advantage this season.

Tyler Bertuzzi gave Grand Rapids the lead with just over four minutes left in the first with a close range snipe.

Playing in just his second game with the Stars, McNeill even the game up again midway through the second when he poked home a no-look pass from Travis Morin.

Eric Tangradi scored what would end up being the game-winner fort eh Griffins right off the face-off early in the third period. Ben Street took advantage of a 3-on-1 and doubled the score on the power play later in the period and the Griffins added an empty netter less than a minute later.

“The one that hurt us was the face-off goal,” Laxdal said. “That was a designed play by them and when the center goes into the circle and sees a different guy, they’ve got to be suspicious. They stung us and we tried to battle back shorthanded.”

The Stars are still in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time four seasons. With 21 games remaining, Texas (53 points, .482 points percentage) still trail the Bakersfield Condors (54, .540), which beat the Charlotte Checkers 5-2 on Saturday, for the fourth playoff spot in the Pacific Division.

Texas travels to face the San Antonio Rampage Sunday at 3 p.m. before coming home for the final game of the season series against the Griffins Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. in the first of a four-game homestand.

“The road trip is over, we finished it with a win,” Laxdal said. “We’re living day to day right now. We were decimated with guys being sick and injuries and call-ups. You’ve got to battle with what you have and galvanize your hockey club.”

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