Stepneski: What has made Texas Stars so impressive this postseason?
Dallas' AHL affiliate has earned a spot in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2014by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge
The Texas Stars are on a nice playoff run. They've made it past the first round for the first time since 2014 when they went the distance and won the AHL's Calder Cup on Patrik Nemeth's overtime goal against St. John's in Game 5 of the championship series.
[RELATED: Texas Stars dispatch Tucson, advance to Western Conference Finals for third time ever]
The 2017-18 Texas Stars still have a long way to go this year -- just halfway there with two rounds down and two to go -- but the pieces have fallen into place nicely so far. They are playing well, are healthy, and the lineup, which has stayed fairly consistent in the playoffs, has delivered.
Pretty impressive for a team that was battling for a playoff spot down the stretch.
Like the NHL, the AHL regular season is a grind. It's 76 games for most of the league (West Coast teams play just 68 due to travel). But the AHL is a little different. Not only do teams in the AHL have to deal with their own injuries, but they are also affected by the injuries of their NHL affiliates, which lead to call-ups. There's also a rule that only so many veterans can play per game. That adds up to a lot of roster shuffling and lineup juggling. This season, Texas used 37 players including 23 forwards, 11 defensemen, and three goaltenders. Last season, when Dallas was hit hard by injuries, Texas used 49 players.
Anyway, in these playoffs so far Texas has been able to run with a consistent lineup, using just 21 players. There's been only one change through the first two rounds when defensemen John Nyberg was brought in for two games. And there hasn't been much need for change. So far, Texas has contributions throughout the lineup. Fourteen of the 19 skaters who have dressed for the Stars in the playoffs have scored goals, and 18 of 19 skaters have tallied points. That's everybody chipping in, and that helps.
Here are three thoughts on Texas' solid run so far.
1. Overtime success
Overtime has been big for Texas in the playoffs.
Four of the Stars' seven wins in the postseason have come in extra time where they got a lot of experience in the regular season. Twenty-eight of Texas' 76 regular season games went into extra playing time, second-most in the AHL. The Stars are 4-1 in playoff overtime, and their five playoff OT games are tops so far in the AHL postseason.
No doubt it's different with 3-on-3 being the format in the regular season and 5-on-5 the way you play in the playoffs, and the stakes are higher, but Texas has made the most of it.
The Stars are 7-2 through the first two rounds with a 3-1 series win over Ontario in the first round and then a 4-1 win over Tucson in Round 2. Both those series were tightly played and could have gone either way, but two OT wins in Round 1 and two OT wins in Round 2 were huge.
Overall, the Stars are 5-1 in one-goal games in the playoffs. They've won twice in four tries when trailing after two periods. They are 6-0 when scoring first. Bottom line, they've handled a lot of different situations well.
2. Playoff MVP so far? Look in net
If you want to pick an MVP through the first two rounds of the playoffs for Texas, I will go with goaltender Mike McKenna.
He's been outstanding, posting a 7-2-0 record and ranking second in save percentage (.952) and fourth in goals against average (1.64) in the AHL playoffs. McKenna stopped 91 of 91 shots as the Stars won Games 3 and 4 to close out Ontario in the first round. That stretch over the final two games included taking over for Landon Bow midway through Game 3 and stopping all 44 shots he faced as Texas won, 5-4, in double overtime. He then tossed a 47-save shutout as the Stars wrapped up the series with a 1-0 victory in Game 4.
In the Pacific Division Finals against Tucson, he posted a 1.63 goals against average and .948 save percentage, stopping 163 of 172 shots in the five games.
Veteran forward Brian Flynn ranks second in AHL playoff scoring with 10 points (six goals, four assists) in nine games, so he is the goals and points leader for Texas. He's been a consistent performer for Texas throughout the season. I was surprised he never got called up to Dallas during the season, but that is a moot point now.
Some of Dallas' younger players have played well in the playoffs so far. Roope Hintz, Denis Gurianov, and defenseman Gavin Bayreuther have stood out at times. Remi Elie has played well. Jason Dickinson got off to a bit of a slow start in the Ontario series, but he came on strong in the Division Finals with Tucson and looked very good.
3. Benefits of a long playoff run for Texas
So, what's the payoff of a long playoff run for the AHL affiliate of the Dallas Stars? Well, if you ask Dallas GM Jim Nill, he'll tell you that it speeds up the development time of the team's prospects.
"If you can have a good run in the AHL playoffs, it is worth half a year in development time," Nill said. "This is where you get that experience. We had a group of guys that won it down there (2014), and a good portion of those guys are in the NHL now.
"It's all about getting into that grind and having to win a game -- win a period. You are down, 2-1, how are you going to win a game? It's a great experience. We bring kids who finished in college and juniors, and they get to go down there and live it and see it. It is very important."
The Stars had several draft picks on that Texas team that won the 2014 Calder Cup. Radek Faksa, Brett Ritchie, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, Curtis McKenzie, Jyrki Jokipakka, Scott Glennie, and Matej Stransky were Dallas draft picks that played regularly during that playoff run. Jack Campbell was the No. 2 goaltender. Colton Sceviour, another Dallas draft pick, co-led the team in goal scoring during the regular season, but he finished the season in Dallas and didn't play in the Calder Cup playoffs.
Faksa and Ritchie are regular players with Dallas now, and McKenzie has 99 NHL games under his belt but spent most of this season in the AHL. Nemeth and Oleksiak both saw time in Dallas over the next few years, but they couldn't find a regular spot and have found homes elsewhere in the NHL, and Campbell looks like he is the No. 2 goaltender in Los Angeles now. Sceviour had some good years in Dallas, but he has moved on as well and has been a regular player in Florida the past two seasons.
That team did help produce some NHL level players, and several of them contributed to the 2015-16 Dallas team that made the playoffs, but four years later the impact in Dallas has dwindled.
This time around, Dallas has draft picks like Hintz, Gurianov, Dickinson, and Elie playing as regulars during this run, along with Bayreuther (free agent) and Dillon Heatherington (trade acquisition). Niklas Hansson was a regular player for Texas this season, but he hasn't played in the playoffs. Jason Robertson, the second-round pick in 2017, is on the roster. Time will tell if he plays, but he is soaking up the experience.
So, three or four years from now we can look back and see how many NHL players this team produced and what kind of impact they've had.
Up next: Rockford
The Stars will play Rockford, the affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, in the Western Conference Finals. The IceHogs, who finished fourth in the Central Division, have put together their own impressive playoff run by sweeping their first two playoff series. They swept the Chicago Wolves (the Vegas affiliate if you are wondering) 3-0 in Round 1 and Manitoba in Round 2. They have outscored their opposition 29-13 in going 7-0 through the first two rounds.
Veteran forward Chris DiDomenico leads Rockford and the AHL in playoff scoring with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) and IceHogs goaltender Collin Delia has been solid with a 1.64 goals against average and .948 save percentage.
Rockford won three of four games against Texas during the regular season, but I am not going to read much into that. Texas is a different team now, and so is Rockford.
Texas holds home-ice advantage in the series, which begins Friday in Cedar Park.
Western Conference Finals schedule
Game 1 - Fri., May 18 - Rockford at Texas, 7 p.m. CT
Game 2 - Sun., May 20 - Rockford at Texas, 5 p.m. CT
Game 3 - Tue., May 22 - Texas at Rockford, 7 p.m. CT
Game 4 - Thu., May 24 - Texas at Rockford, 7 p.m. CT
*Game 5 - Fri., May 25 - Texas at Rockford, 7 p.m. CT
*Game 6 - Mon., May 28 - Rockford at Texas, 7 p.m. CT
*Game 7 - Tue., May 29 - Rockford at Texas, 7 p.m. CT
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. Follow him on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.