Joel L’Esperance’s habit of crashing the net paid off in a big way Friday night.
The rookie scored his first goal of the postseason in overtime, handing the Stars a 3-2 win over the Tucson Roadrunners and sending them to the Western Conference Finals for the third time in nine years with a 4-1 series win.
“As a big guy out there I try to get pucks to the net and get my body to the net as much as I can and it worked out a couple times tonight,” L’Esperance said. “(Our line) tries to bring energy to the team and play the hard minutes and I thought we did a good job of that tonight.”
Game 1 will be Friday at 7 p.m. at the HEB Center and Game 2 will take place Sunday at 5 p.m. The next three games will shift to Rockford and, if necessary, Games 6 and 7 will be in Cedar Park on May 28 and 29, respectively.
Texas lost the first game of the Pacific Division Finals 2-1 in overtime in Tucson last week but rebounded with a 4-1 win in Game 2. The Stars again needed overtime to win Game 3 at home on Monday and shut out the regular season Pacific Division Champions in the fourth game to take a 3-1 series lead.
“It was a hard-fought series and it was a lot closer than 4-1,” Stars head coach Derek Laxdal said. “They played with a lot of urgency early but I thought we managed it well. Our guys will be resilient all year. I’m very proud of these guys.”
Both teams finished 1-for-5 on the power play and Tucson outshot Texas in every period except overtime and led the final shot count 39-29.
Mike McKenna finished with 37 saves to earn the seventh win of the postseason. His opposite number Adin Hill made 26 saves. Both goalies entered the series with long goalless streaks and three of the five games went to overtime.
“Whenever we get into a situation where we’re talking about a goalie matchup, it’s indicative of how the teams are playing,” McKenna said. “We often receive too much credit and we don’t receive enough credit things don’t go well. It was a fun matchup, especially with the close games.”
L’Esperance had an impact early on when he made a strong move to the net early in the opening period. Colin Markison jumped on the missed shot and found the open goal to give Texas an early lead.
Tucson looked like it tied the game midway through the frame, but the shot bounced off both posts and out. The goal light went off behind the net but the referee waved it off. But the Roadrunners broke through not long after with a backhanded flick just as a Texas penalty was ending.
Travis Morin gave Texas the lead once again with a power-play goal late in the second period, but Tucson responded just over a minute later with a shorthanded goal to tie things up.
Tucson was the best team in the Pacific Division and Texas advanced despite not having home ice. Rockford has yet to lose a game in the playoffs this year after sweeping the Manitoba Moose in the Central Division Finals.
“Tucson is a good team and they never gave up,” L’Esperance said. “Going into Rockford, it gives us confidence.”