As the month of March is rapidly coming to a close, the feeling in the air tonight at Cedar Park Center was one of playoff hockey. Whether it was the fact that the Dallas brass was in the house, or just the sheer recognition that every single game matters in the Western Division right now, the Texas Stars were on fire Tuesday evening. In front of an announced crowd of 6,863 fans, the Stars blanked division rival, the Houston Aeros by a score of 3-0.
During the first period, the Stars outshot the visiting Houston Aeros 17-8 and controlled the pace of the game on both ends of the ice. The period was full of crisp passes and clean shots, but solid play by Aeros goalie Matt Hackett kept the home team off the scoreboard until late in the frame. Fifteen minutes in, Stars’ Raymond Sawada mixed things up in front of the net with Aeros’ Drew Bagnall. The officials separated the two before a fight really developed and slapped Bagnall with a roughing penalty and Sawada with an unsportsmanlike conduct. Just twelve seconds into the 4-on-4 play, the Aeros’ Cody Almond was called for a hooking penalty and Texas had its first power play opportunity of the game with a 4-on-3 chance. No stranger to the left wing circle, Greg Rallo scored his 25th goal of the year to give the Stars the lead. Rallo was assisted by Aaron Gagnon and Dan Spang on the power play goal.
The pace of the second period slowed a little and toward the end of the period, Houston gained some momentum when they were able to close the shots on goal gap. For over two minutes late in the second, the Aeros pressed on offense and forced Stars goalie Richard Bachman to come up with some clutch saves to keep the visitors scoreless. At 18:37, rookie defenseman Brenden Dillon committed an interference penalty and the Stars were on the penalty kill. Texas kept pressure on Houston however, and center Aaron Gagnon collected the puck on a breakaway and fed it beautifully down low to Francis Wathier for the short-handed goal to put the Stars up 2-0.
Unlike some earlier games this season where Texas saw an early lead slip away in the third period, the Stars wrapped up the final frame with an urgency that held the Aeros to only four shots on goal. The Stars scored on another power play chance after Houston’s Jeff Penner was sent to the penalty box for cross-checking. Travis Morin netted the goal, his eighteenth of the season, that put the Stars up 3-0 to end the game. Ray Sawada and Aaron Gagnon were credited with the assists on the score, giving Gagnon an assist on all three goals of the night.
Special teams certainly came up big for the Stars in the victory, as all three goals scored were a result of power play or penalty kill efforts. Earlier in the week, the Stars lost Captain Brad Lukowich to an NHL callup to Dallas, but added a couple of new faces to the lineup. Defenseman Guilaume Monast was brought back up from the Idaho Steelheads, defenseman Brenden Dillon played his first AHL game after being signed to an amateur tryout from his WHL junior team, the Seattle Thunderbirds, and the home crowd got its first look at Mike Embach, the forward from Ferris State University. After the game, alternate captain Aaron Gagnon, noted that all of the new additions played well, saying, “with injuries and callups, guys have got to come in and step up and they did.”
Although Houston only had twenty shots on goal for the night, Texas goalie Richard Bachman came up with some crucial saves to preserve his sixth shutout of the season. Despite his perfect performance, Bachman gave a lot of credit to the entire team saying the team played a “very solid game” and “looked sharp tonight, making simple, but hard plays.”
The team knows that every game is important as they finish out the regular season and is already looking forward to this weekend’s matchups. Forward Aaron Gagnon said although the momentum of the win definitely helps, “There is no let up now. We have to look at the teams above us now and just worry about ourselves.” The Stars are currently sitting at third place in the West Division, but have two games in hand over the Houston Aeros who still occupy the second place slot. Texas will face the Grand Rapid Griffins both Friday and Saturday at Cedar Park Center.