TEXAS STARS

Stars, IceHogs square off in Western Conference Finals

Head-to-head, Rockford won three of four games against Texas during the regular season

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Curtis McKenzie was a rookie the last time the Stars made it to the Western Conference Finals. Texas went on to lift the Calder Cup that season and the season launched McKenzie into the NHL. 

Now, the Stars are back in the Conference Finals as they prepare to take on the Rockford IceHogs in a best-of-seven series beginning Friday night at 7 p.m. HEB Center and continuing Sunday at 5 p.m.

“I’m on the flip side of where I was when we won and it’s pretty cool on this side too,” McKenzie said. “It’s good to see the contribution we’ve got for all four lines, they’ve all scored big goals for us. Everyone is working hard and we’re going to need that through the rest of the playoffs.”

Texas eliminated the Ontario Reign winning three of four games in the first round and followed that up with four straight wins against the regular season Pacific Division champion Tucson Roadrunners to advance to the Conference Finals for the third time in nine years.  

In 2014, McKenzie’s first full season in the AHL, he finished with 27 goals and 38 assists and had three goals and 11 assists in the playoffs. Despite missing more than 15 games with an injury this year, he had 25 goals and 23 assists during the regular season and already had a pair of goals and five helpers in the playoffs. 

Between winning the Calder Cup in 2014 and now, the 26-year-old forward has made 99 career NHL appearances and spent almost the entirety of last season in Dallas. 

“As a younger guy, I was kind of hanging on to coattails and watching what they were doing while also trying to perform well,” McKenzie said. “Now I’m on the other side of that. We’re just trying to send the same message. The team is responding really well.”

Both young players and veterans have been contributing throughout the playoffs. 

Veteran forward Brian Flynn has six goals in the playoffs, the most in the AHL, while goalie Mike McKenna has been a brick wall, boasting a 1.65 goals against average and 7-2 record with two shutouts in the postseason. 

Rookie Sheldon Dries has three goals in the postseason. The third line of Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz and Flynn has combined for nine goals and 10 assists in the playoffs and fourth-line rookie Joel L’Esperance scored the game-winning goal in overtime to send the Stars to the Conference Finals. 

“You see (the development) and you feel it as the year goes on,” McKenna said. “It’s a very finite thing when it comes to playoffs because this is when it really comes to the forefront. I’m happy for them because they’re going the right way.”

Rockford has yet to lose a game in the postseason, sweeping Chicago Wolves and Manitoba Moose in the first two rounds. Head-to-head, the IceHogs won three of four games against the Stars in the regular season. 

McKenzie, Travis Morin and Justin Dowling were all on the Texas team that won the title, and McKenna was traded midseason last year and advanced to the Calder Cup finals, where his team eventually lost. 

The goalie picked the Stars last offseason partly because he saw another path to the title. 

“It’s always been a team that has put an emphasis on winning and developing at the same time,” McKenna said. “You look at the quality of the prospects coming through and you look at the quality of the veterans that are in the room, it’s been a great fit and a lot of fun.

“I know we’re only halfway there, but I’m really proud of our team right now.”

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