Unfortunately for the 7,054 rabid fans on hand, a venue record, it was also an incredibly disappointing one, as the Texas Stars ended up on the short end of a nail-biter, falling in overtime 2-1 to the Hershey Bears Friday night in Game 5 of the Calder Cup Finals.
After losing their fourth straight home game - including all three in this best-of-seven series - the Stars now find themselves on the brink of elimination, trailing the AHL championship 3-2. The Bears have the opportunity to win the Calder Cup in Game 6 in Hershey Monday night.
Even though Texas generated the better scoring chances throughout overtime, and played extremely well overall, Hershey’s Alexandre Giroux put home the game-winner at 13:28 of OT, ending an incredibly exciting hockey game that could have gone either way.
The Stars are now 5-3 in overtime games this post-season, while Hershey improves to 8-1.
“I thought this was one of the best games of the post-season, for sure,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “We played extremely hard. Our guys laid it on the line here. You need bounces and you need overtime wins in the playoffs, but we just didn’t get there. We played solid defensively. We played hard and the most disappointing part is we couldn’t get one at home.”
“It was a great team effort, but we fell short,” added Texas captain (and former Dallas Star) Landon Wilson. “We’re disappointed in that, especially in our last game here at Cedar Park, but that’s just the way the playoffs are and we just got to keep going and stay positive and roll with it.”
The only high-level hockey still being played anywhere on the planet, the AHL Final has been a strange series where the road club has won each game. Texas will need to draw on that positivity as they pick themselves up off the mat and head back to Hershey, where the Bears had been 8-0 in the playoffs before the Stars won the first two games of this series.
“We’ve had success up there, which is something that most teams can’t say,” said Texas defenseman Trevor Ludwig. “They’re usually pretty good in their barn and for whatever reason in this series, the home team hasn’t had the best outcome, so hopefully, that keeps going.”
Aaron Gagnon scored the only goal for Texas on the night, while goaltender Matt Climie was spectacular in defeat, making 41 saves.
“Climie was real good, gave us a chance to win and that’s the kind of goaltending you need in the playoffs,” Gulutzan said. “Your goalie has to give you a chance to win and he’s done that.”
Texas had by far the better opportunities through the first 10 minutes of overtime, outshooting Hershey 9-3 and generating some dangerous scoring chances. Bears goaltender Michal Neuvirth’s best saves came on back-to-back wrist shots 17 seconds apart from Jamie Benn
just over eight minutes in.
Those plays seemed to typify Benn’s series, as the 20-year-old Dallas Stars rookie, who joined the AHL squad after the parent club’s season ended in April, has recorded just two assists in the five games - and he still is tied for the league lead with 14 goals and 26 points.
Gulutzan attributed Benn’s reduced production primarily to him continually facing Hershey’s top defense pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner, both of whom spent time in the NHL this season for their parent club, the Washington Capitals.
“If you look on the other side, and I maybe have to take some blame for this, you have two defensemen there in Carlson and Alzner, where their whole game revolves around when Jamie Benn
gets on the ice, and those guys are NHL defensemen, so it’s not easy,” noted Gulutzan of Benn, who skated in his 105th game of the season. “Certainly, I think Bennie’s played a lot of hockey, he’s up (over 100) games this year since September. We’d like to get him away from that matchup as much as we can.”
As it seems to happen so many times, a fortunate bounce decided the contest in Hershey’s favor. A Bear’s shot hit a mass of bodies in front of the net and bounced up in the air before coming down on the stick of Giroux in front. Climie did not see where it landed right away, so by the time he got set for the shot, Giroux had already corralled the puck and slipped an uncontested wrist shot between his pads for the gut-wrenching game-winner.
“We were shooting and getting good shots, quality shots, and they just got that lucky bounce, just like every overtime goal seems to be,” said Texas defenseman Ethan Graham. “We just got to regroup and go back up there.”
“I thought Texas played very well in the overtime, it was almost trading chances and that’s how you want the game to be played,” said Hershey coach Mark French. “Tonight, we got the last break.”
With the teams tied 1-1 heading into the final period, the exciting action at both ends of the ice was mesmerizing, as both clubs left it all out there and played at a dizzying pace that only got better as the game wore on.
The tension in the building continued to rise as the clock counted down, and Climie kept making stellar saves. His stop on Kyle Wilson’s wrist shot from the right face-off circle with 7:32 remaining was outstanding.
Then Graham made a game-saving block with his stick in the crease. With just under five minutes left, Climie made a nice save on Jay Beagle’s wrist shot from the right corner, and the rebound bounced out to the left of the crease, where Mathieu Perreault had a wide open net to shoot at, but Graham got his stick in the way just in time to deflect it wide.
“It was a shot from the corner and I know Perreault, he likes to kind of get lost, and I knew he was back there,” Graham said of the play. “The rebound just went off Climes, I don’t know if he saw it right away, and I just turned around and tried to get my stick on it. It was kind of a desperation play, so I’m lucky we got it.”
Texas’ best chance late in regulation came on a 2-on-2 rush with 3:02 to go, as Benn and Mathieu Beaudoin sped into the Hershey zone together, and Beaudoin let a scorching slap shot go from 50 feet out that forced Neuvirth to make a big pad stop.
The fact that the Texas defense - and goaltending - withstood the Hershey blitz in the third period was aided very much by the Stars blocking 11 shots over the course of the period, to one for the Bears’ D, setting the stage for overtime.
“The key to some of our success has been blocking shots and that’s what a lot of guys on this team do really well,” noted Ludwig, who dropped down to block one with his helmet off at one point. “If we can do anything to help out Climie and not have the puck go in the net, we’ll do it.”
Texas got on the scoreboard first, as Gagnon notched his eighth goal of the post-season on a power play at 8:03 of the opening period. Just 18 seconds after Hershey’s Cody Eakin entered the penalty box for hooking, Stars defenseman Dan Jancevski unleashed a quick wrist shot from the left point that Gagnon, stationed high in the left circle, deftly deflected past Neuvirth.
Unfortunately for the Stars, just 20 seconds after that, Jancevski was whistled for interference, so any momentum they may have gained from the goal quickly evaporated. Climie came up with a fantastic save at 9:51 on an in-close wrist shot by Perreault to keep the Bears off the board. Francis Wathier
nearly put the Stars up by two with 7:30 left when he found himself with the puck alone in the slot, but Neuvirth made a sensational pad save through a screen.
Climie kept the Stars in the lead with a spectacular save on Chris Bourque with 1:52 remaining. After allowing the rebound of a shot from the right circle to bounce out into the left circle, Bourque drilled a one-timer towards a half-empty net, but Climie somehow managed to scramble across the crease and make the stop.
So despite being outshot 17-10, the Stars still carried a 1-0 lead into the second period.
Following plenty of exciting, end-to-end action, the Bears spent about two minutes straight in the Texas zone, applying considerable pressure, but Climie came up with several impressive saves, including his fabulous glove snag of Kyle Wilson’s point-blank rebound attempt at 8:10.
The Stars went on the counter-attack 45 seconds later, and Benn dished a nice cross-ice pass to Jancevski, who rifled a high wrist shot from the top of the left circle that forced Neuvirth to make a sparkling glove save.
Hershey maintained the momentum they’d built up, however, after Wathier was banished to the penalty box for interference at 9:09. Despite a heroic effort killing it off with the Bears maintaining possession in the Texas zone for virtually the entire two minutes, Hershey managed to tie it up just as Wathier stepped back on the ice.
Francois Bouchard drilled home his fifth of the playoffs at 11:12 on a one-timer from the high slot after a slick pass from the left circle by Bourque (Hall of Famer Raymond Bourque’s son) to make it 1-1.
Shortly after that, the Stars got their own opportunity on the man-advantage, but were unable to punch one through, although they generated several prime scoring chances. Neuvirth flashed more of the skills that helped him lead the Bears to last year’s Calder Cup and which earned him playoff MVP honors when he made an awesome glove save on Benn’s rebound chance on the doorstep with 6:23 left in the period.
With the Cup on the line, the series shifts to Pennsylvania for Game 6 Monday night (6 pm start) and if necessary, Game 7 on Wednesday. After facing a similar scenario against Hamilton in the Western Conference Finals, trailing the series 3-2 with the next two games on the road, the Stars were able to pull it out. They feel confident that they can do it again.
“We sure are drawing on (that experience) already,” Gulutzan said. “Hamilton was a great team and the focus is always the same. You play each period as it is, each shift as it is - you don’t think too far ahead. That’s what we did that series and that’s what we’re going to do now. Remember that we went into overtime in Game 6 in Hamilton. You just play it as it is.”STARGAZING
- Landon Wilson, who played 27 games in Dallas last year, led the squad with eight shots on goal.
- Veteran Stars defenseman Andrew Hutchinson, who played 38 games in Dallas last season, sat out for the second straight contest with an undisclosed injury. He is still listed as day-to-day.
- Goaltender Brent Krahn came off the injured list for the first time since suffering an undisclosed injury in Game 6 of the West Division Finals against Chicago. Since Climie has been doing so well in his place, Krahn took a seat on the bench as the backup.