CEDAR PARK, Texas — A year after the Texas Stars finished with one of the worst records in the AHL, the team rebounded to finish the 2012-2013 regular season with 97 points and the top seed in the Western Conference. The Stars finished with a record of 43-22-5-6.
In round one, Texas will play the Milwaukee Admirals (89 points) who clinched a playoff spot and the eighth seed on the last day of the regular season. The eight teams in the Western Conference who qualified for the playoffs are only separated by eight points.
In the short history of the Texas Stars, the team came within a whisker of winning the Calder Cup in their first year of existance (2009-2010), then lost in the first round to Milwaukee in 2010-2011. They missed the playoffs last year but hope to make another deep Calder cup run to top off the current campaign.
The team got off to a relatively slow start, but as the season progressed, rose to the top of their divison and conference. When the NHL lockout ended, the Dallas Stars reached down and scooped up several of the team’s top players, leading many to believe that would be the downfall of the Texas Stars’ season.
But it didn’t turn out that way. Players who were called up from other teams like the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads or signed professional tryout contracts fit in like they’d been with the team from the inception. It didn’t seem to matter who was on the ice, how the lines or defense were paired or who was in goal. The team continued to win under the guidance of Head Coach Willie Desjardins and Assistant Coach Doug Lidster. For his efforts, Desjardins was named AHL Coach of the Year by his AHL peers.
Despite being the higher seed, Texas will begin the series on the road, playing the first two games in Milwaukee. One has to wonder if this gives the Admirals a marked advantage.
“Obviously, playing a 2-3 series format isn’t ideal,” Stars’ forward Travis Morin said. “But we’ve done really well on the road this year and we don’t look to change that.”
Texas finished with the best road record in the league at 25-9-3-1, but it doesn’t mean much going into the playoffs.
“We’ve played well on the road,” Desjardins said. “But it’s always tough in another team’s rink. You try to make the best out of it, but it will be a tough situation. There have been some ups and downs this season. I don’t think we’ve proven that we are better than the other teams in the playoffs, but we’ve proven we are a playoff team.”
The Stars and Admirals are not playoff strangers. The Admirals knocked the Stars out in the first round of the 2010-2011 series in six games that included two overtime losses. The teams are very similar in playing style.
“They haven’t changed the way they play the last couple of years,” Morin said. “Both teams are hard-working, good fore-checking teams and both have good goaltending and strong defense. I’m expecting a tough, grind it out series with low scoring.”
Texas forward Colton Sceviour reflected back on his four years with Texas Stars and past games with Milwaukee.
“All the way back to our first year, the guys have changed, but they always play the same way,” Sceviour said. “They don’t give you a lot and they make you work really hard. They’re very structured and very good in their own end. Both teams are going to work hard, play defense first and get their chances off of that.”
Attitude has a lot to do with the success of this year’s Texas Stars’ team and attitude and focus are key in any playoff series.
“Our biggest strength is our character and our leadership from our veteran players,” Lidster said. “We had a lot of changes in our lineup throughout the year, but our one consistent is that we’ve had a lot of guys that are committed to playing under the values that Coach (Desjardins) set at the beginning of the year. The young guys come in and learn how to act and come to work every day and be a professional from guys like Max Fortunus, Toby Peterson, Tyler sloan and others.”
Fortunus is the team Captain and team prankster who stresses the importance of not only working hard, but also having a little fun.
“All the guys who were here last year got together and set a common goal to get into the playoffs and go as far as we can,” Fortunus said. “Nobody was happy with what happened last season. You want to be excited. It’s the best time of the year, so maybe we’ll play some Christmas music. You want to be loose, but you know it’s going to be hard work. It’s real important to keep the guys in a good mood.”
No one is looking more forward to the playoffs than defenseman Mike Commodore. The former Stanely Cup winner and AHL/NHL journeyman was on a golfing trip across the nation and was contemplating whether or not his hockey career had ended when he got the call from the Stars.
“I went from not playing; just kind of riding the (NHL) lockout, to thinking I was going to Europe to ending up in Hamilton (with the Bulldogs) for a professional tryout to packing up my gear and living at home,” Commodore said. “I took a golf trip, the phone rang and I pulled into Austin and here I am.”
Texas was short on defenseman at the time due to injuries and callups to the NHL.
“When I got here, they were in need of defenseman,” Commodore said. “Then all of a sudden, we had too many and had to get that number down. For me, I know I can still play and I know I can help this team so I need to focus on what this team does. If i can keep my game simple, I think I can help.”
(for more on Commodore’s story, go to: http://www.statesman.com/news/sports/hockey/veteran-defenseman-back-in-pads-to-bolster-stars/nXJQg/)
Given all the player changes during this unusual season, the Stars have no choice but to keep it simple if they hope to move forward in the playoffs.
“It’s been a strange year with lots of guys coming in and out of the lineup,” Stars’ hard-hitting forward Luke Gazdic said. “But we’ve jelled real quick and the guys get along well and that’s all we can ask for. We haven’t changed the way we play just because we’re in first place. We’ll be ready to go on Friday!”
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