Stars head coach Derek Laxdal urged his team to take a deep breath.
Justin Dowling scored the game-winning goal midway through the third period and the Stars outlasted the Toronto Marlies 3-2 in Game 4 of the Calder Cup Finals Thursday night at HEB Center to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
“Our guys had a mindset they weren’t going to lose tonight,” Laxdal said. “Especially in the third period, we really buckled down and we didn’t give them a lot. I liked the way our group responded. We played tight we played hard. It was the style that we need to win.”
Dowling finished the game with a goal and an assist and forward Curtis McKenzie scored two goals to give him a team and league-high 10 in the postseason. He also leads the league with 19 postseason points, boasting nine assists.
Mike McKenna stopped 29 of 31 shots he faced to pick up 13th win of the playoffs, matching his win total from last season when he advanced to the Calder Cup Finals with the Syracuse Crunch.
Toronto outshot Texas 31-18 in the game. The Stars were 1-for-2 on the power play as McKenzie’s first goal came with a man advantage.
“Our top line really led the club,” Laxdal said. “The performance by McKenzie — the captain of the team — along with Dowling was outstanding. Dowling has had an incredible playoffs for us. They scored some big goals for us.”
All four games so far have been one-goal games.
Toronto took a wild opening game 6-5 last Saturday and Texas rebounded with a 2-1 road win in Game 2 on Sunday. As the series shifted to Texas for Game 3, the Marlies outlasted a late Stars push in a 2-1 win on Tuesday night.
Game 5 will begin at 7 p.m. at the HEB Center and will go back to Canada with Game 6 taking place Tuesday at 6 p.m. If necessary, Game 7 will begin Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto.
“You’re in the finals with the two best teams in the league and there’s nothing between them,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I don’t care what happens during the regular season, (Texas is) the best team in the Western Conference. Other teams are allowed to be good too.”
McKenzie deflected in a rebound for the first goal of the game on the power play midway through the first period. He scored his second of the game early in the second period, hammering home a centering pass from Justin Dowling.
Toronto snapped back late in the second, first when a shot by Dmytro Timashov somehow trickled past McKenna and again just 50 seconds later on a give-and-go snipe by Andreas Johnsson on an odd-man rush.
“You can’t let up against the Marlies, they have so much skill,” McKenzie said. “If you sit back on them, they’re going to put pucks in the net. You have to keep going and keep with the game plan for a full 60 minutes to have success.”
Dowling’s game-winner, his fourth goal of the playoffs, came with just over 10 minutes left. He deflected a shot by defenseman Matt Mangene from the point over the Toronto goalie Garret Sparks’ shoulder.
“Our line has been going all playoffs,” Dowling said. “Last series kind of kickstarted us, we were able to find the net a little more. When we played Tucson, we were gripping our sticks a little tight. There’s a little bit more on the line and maybe just bear down a little more.”
It was loud inside the HEB Center, and the fans could feel the urgency when the game was tied entering the final period. A capacity crowd of 6,863 filled the arena in Cedar Park for Game 4, the second straight sellout.
“The crowd was outstanding, especially when (Toronto) tied the game and had the momentum, it gave us another boost,” Laxdal said. “In the four years I’ve been here, that was the loudest and the fullest I’ve seen. It’s exciting for the fans to be a part of the win tonight and hopefully, we can do it again on Saturday.”