Stars head coach Derek Laxdal knows exactly where he and his team stands as they prepare to get the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs get underway.
Texas, who played in the most overtime game in the league during the regular season, needed two extra-time games to down the Ontario Reign in the first round and set up a second-round series against the Pacific Division champions Tucson Roadrunners.
“We’re the underdog in the series,” Laxdal said. “They kind of led from start to finish in the season in the division. They’re a team with a lot of offense, they skate well and for an offensive team, they defend very well.”
Despite playing eight fewer games than the Stars, the Roadrunners finished with four more wins and won three of their four meetings against Texas. Tucson beat the San Jose Barracuda in four games in the opening round of the playoffs.
Only the Stars scored more goals in the Pacific Division, but the Roadrunners allowed the second-fewest goals in the league during the regular season. Tucson ended the series against San Jose with back-to-back home shutouts, winning 6-0 and 3-0.
The best-of-seven series begins with two games in Arizona before shifting to Cedar Park for Game 3 and Game 4 on Monday and Wednesday. If necessary, Game 5 will be Friday at the HEB Center, while Game 6 and Game 7 would be in Tucson on Sunday and Monday.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Laxdal said. “But we need to get pucks to the net, get bodies to the net and force the goaltender to make the first save. We have a standard of play that we’re not going to be a big, heavy team. It’s going to be a good series.”
While Tucson has an impressive defensive record the last few games, Texas has Mike McKenna. The Stars’ netminder stopped the last 91 shots he faced in the first round — including 47 in the Game 4 shutout.
“I’m just trying to play my game,” McKenna said. “There’s nothing really special about it. You’re just hoping you get some help from your teammates and they’ve done a really nice job the last few games. They’ve been getting the job done as the game winds down.”
Young players have made their mark in the first round for the Stars too.
Denis Gurianov is tied for the team lead in playoff goals with two and rookies Sam Laberge and Sheldon Dries have also found the back of the net. Roope Hintz leads the team with a trio of assists and rookie defenseman Gavin Bayreuther took a step up in the first round.
“This is where the development of the young guys takes a quicker turn,” Laxdal said. “This is the best time of the year to accelerate their development. All the guys did a great job. They’ve already been through the first round, now they can settle down and play.”
This is the first time the Stars have moved past the first rind since they won the Calder Cup in 2014 and the first AHL series win in the four-year tenure of Laxdal, who joined before the 2014-15 season.
The roster is littered with players that have AHL playoff experience, including some like Travis Morin and Curtis McKenzie, that lifted the only title in Texas history in 2014.
McKenna was traded to the Syracuse Crunch midway through last season and helped them dance to the Calder Cup finals. He appeared in 22 playoff game last year, but Syracuse fell to the Grand Rapid Griffins in six games.
“(Championships are) what we play for,” McKenna said. “That’s why I wanted to come to Texas because I knew this organization was hungry for it and I was too. Getting to play there gives you a taste of what it’s like at that stage. It's another thing to win it.”