A pass from the longest-tenured Texas Stars player to the shortest one sent the team back into the postseason.
Joel L’Esperance scored the game-winning goal on a pass from Travis Morin and the Stars rallied from down two goals to beat the Rockford IceHogs 4-3 on Saturday night and clinch a spot in the Calder Cup playoffs.
“I saw (Morin) pick the puck up and the defender laid down and I didn’t think it was going to make it over,” L’Esperance said. “I didn’t think it was going to make it back down to the ice with how high it got. I took a swing at it and it happened to go in.”
It was the 150th win in head coach Derek Laxdal’s AHL and Stars career and defensemen Andrew Bodnarchuck picked up his 150th career AHL assist with a helper on the first goal of the third period.
Landon Bow stopped 22 of the 25 shots he saw to win his 20th game this season.
Texas missed the playoffs last year for just the second time since the team moved to Texas before the 2009-10 season.
The Stars needed more than the planned 60 minutes in their last two games, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Stockton Heat on Wednesday night and a 3-2 shootout loss to the IceHogs on Friday evening.
“Our guys have been resilient all year,” Laxdal said. “Last night battling back to get a point and tonight down 3-1 in the third period. For the guys to clinch it with three game left takes a lot of pressure off the group and says a lot about the guys we have.”
The Stars got the game started quickly, scoring less than 10 minutes in on the power play on a wrist shot from Brent Regner with Morin screening the Rockford goalie.
The IceHogs evened things up just before the first-period horn as Tyler Sikura swatted in a bouncing puck right in front of the net.
Rockford took its first lead of the game early in the second period when Sikura scored his second of the game on a shot from the left side that clanked off the crossbar and in. The IceHogs extended their lead near the end of the frame with a close-range goal from the slot.
Brian Flynn scored with a rocket shot from near the blue line three minutes into the third period and Texas continued to push the pace. Roope Hintz rushed up the left side of the ice and tied the game with a top-shelf goal with under 10 minutes left.
“At the end of the second, we had five minutes where we really took it to them,” L’Esperance said. “We talked at the intermission that we had to keep going, so in the third, we brought it to them a little more.”
L’Esperance joined the team on an amateur tryout agreement on March 27 and made his AHL debut in a shootout loss against the Grand Rapids Griffins on March 28. He scored 46 goals and had 152 assists during his four-year career at Michigan Tech.
Morin found L’Esperance with a quick pass on the odd-man rush with under three minutes left to give the Stars a win and clinch a playoff spot. It was Morin’s league-leading 50th assist of the season.
“(Morin) can make a play at any given time and he set up the game-winner tonight,” Laxdal said. “(Joel) has been with us for a week and a half and he’s fit in well with the group. He’s had some good looks so it’s good to see him score tonight, I’m sure it will only help his confidence.”
Two of the final three regular-season games are at home as Texas first welcoming the Grand Rapids Griffins to town on Wednesday night. The Stars travel to San Antonio on Friday before the regular season finale against the Rampage Saturday at 7 p.m.
The Calder Cup Playoffs will get underway the week of Apr. 16.
“Any time you get a clinching game in the fashion we did it with a full house, what a great way to send some hockey fans home,” Laxdal said. “It’s exciting. We’re going to celebrate for a day and get ready to practice on Monday.”