“We’re excited,” said Texas forward Mike Hedden. “It’s the Western Conference Finals.”
The Stars have passed two big tests to get to this point. They swept Oklahoma City, the team that eliminated them in last season’s playoffs, in three games in the first round. And then they knocked off Grand Rapids, the defending Calder Cup champions, 4-2, in round two.
“Those teams don’t lose easy. They battle hard. I think we are a better team because we had to play both those teams,” said Stars coach Willie Desjardins. “Sometimes you don’t know the level you have, sometimes there is a better level. Until you get competition that makes you go to that level, you don’t go there. It’s not an easy level to get to. It takes a lot.”
They’ll have another stiff challenge in this round. Toronto, the third seed in the West, comes into the series on an impressive roll, sweeping both Milwaukee and Chicago in the first two rounds. The Marlies have posted a 7-0 postseason record, outscoring their opponents 30-11.
“They’re a strong team. They do lots of things well, and it really just shows in the playoffs,” said Desjardins. “They have lots of weapons, they are really balanced in their four lines and they have some defense that can jump up and can score. We’ll have to be at the top of our game for sure.”
The two teams met four times during the regular season. The Stars had a 2-1-1 record (five points) and the Marlies were 2-2-0 (four points). Both teams were 2-0-0 at home. But the last time they met was three months ago, still there is some familiarity.
“They are a little different than us. They use their size a little more and we use our speed,” said Texas forward Brett Ritchie. “It will be a different dynamic that way, but I don’t think it is anything we can’t handle. We match up with them pretty well and we had good games with them when we played them earlier in the year.”
“They’re a skilled team with a lot of high-end players,” Toronto forward Sam Carrick said of the Stars. “They are well-coached, they have good goaltending and they work hard. It should be a good matchup against us. I think if we play our game, it’s going to be a good series.”
Although the Marlies are undefeated and have been impressive in sweeping their first two series, Toronto coach Steve Spott said the Stars, who have been impressive in the playoffs as well, are the big dog in this series. The Stars posted the best record during the regular season, have the league MVP in Travis Morin and the league’s Rookie of the Year in Curtis McKenzie.
“We know how good they are. They are the No. 1 team in the league. Let’s not kid ourselves. We are underdogs and we understand that,” Spott told Toronto media. “We’ve been underdogs since September 1 in this league. No one has given this team much of a chance. But we are peaking at the right time, we are playing well at the right time. They’ve got the mindset that they can be successful. As a coach, I just have to point them in the right direction and make sure the game plan is in place.”
As the league’s best team during the regular season, Texas has home ice advantage throughout the postseason, and the Stars have capitalized on it through the first two rounds. They are 4-0 and have outscored their opponents 20-5. Toronto has been strong on the road, posting a 4-0 mark and outscoring their opposition 20-8.
“Every game this season we played hard at home, and I think it is going to be the same thing coming in with the Marlies,” said Texas forward Dustin Jeffrey. “They are a good team. They are a strong team. They are probably a little more physical than the teams that we played in the first two rounds, but we are not going to change the way we are going to play. We’ve had success all year and in the playoffs playing our speed game, our transition game and trying to take advantage of their mistakes. I think against Toronto we are going to have to do the same thing.”
*Among the Stars injured players are goaltender Jack Campbell and forwards Justin Dowling and Toby Petersen. Coach Willie Desjardins, who has been alternating Cristopher Nilstorp and Campbell during the playoffs, hasn’t ruled out Campbell playing in the series. There have been no updates on Dowling or Petersen.
*Desjardins and Toronto coach Steve Spott were behind the bench together for Team Canada at the 2010 World Junior Championship. Desjardins was head coach and Spott was assistant coach.
*Spott coached Stars forward Radek Faksa when he was with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
*Toronto leads the AHL playoffs in goals for (4.29) and goals against (1.57).
*The Stars rank second in goals for (3.67) and fourth in goals against (2.11).
*Texas ranks sixth on the power play in the playoffs at 22.0 percent (9-41) and fifth on the penalty kill at 86.7 percent (26-30).
*Toronto ranks fourth on the power play at 25.0 percent (9-36) and second on the penalty kill at 89.7 percent (26-29).
*Marlies goaltender Drew MacIntyre is 7-0 with a 1.56 goals against average and .949 save percentage in the postseason.
*Stars goaltender Cristopher Nilstorp is 5-1 with a 1.68 goals against average and .934 save percentage.
*Travis Morin leads Texas in scoring with 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in nine playoff games.
*Jerry D’Amigo leads Toronto in scoring with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in seven games.
*Texas forward Brendan Ranford is tied for second in playoff goal scoring with seven in nine games.
*Three different Marlies are tied for the team lead with four goals each.
*Texas forward Mike Hedden enters the series on a seven game points streak (three goals, four assists).
*Toronto forward Jerry D’Amigo enters the game on a seven game points streak (four goals, eight assists).
Western Conference Finals schedule
Game 1: Fri., May 23, Toronto at Texas, 7:30
Game 2: Mon., May 26, Toronto at Texas, 7:30
Game 3: Wed., May 28, Texas at Toronto, 6:00
Game 4: Thu., May 29, Texas at Toronto, 6:00
*Game 5: Sat., May 31, Texas at Toronto, 2:00
*Game 6: Mon., June 2, Toronto at Texas, 7:30
*Game 7: Tue., June 3, Toronto at Texas, 7:30
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. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.