by Patrick Williams
The Texas Stars and Toronto Marlies see a lot of themselves in each other.
Skill, depth, and a certain stubbornness – those are some of the main elements shared by two opponents who were otherwise unfamiliar with each other before Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals on Saturday.
Toronto needed to break four ties or Texas leads before finally closing out a 6-5 win. The teams will stage Game 2 on Sunday at Ricoh Coliseum (4 p.m. ET, TSN2, NHL Network, Leafs Nation Network, NHL Network Radio) before the series moves to Texas.
Each team also learned that they are quite capable of keeping up with their formidable opponent. The Marlies tore through the Eastern Conference and hold a 10-game winning streak in the Calder Cup Playoffs. They swept the Syracuse Crunch (100 points) and the Atlantic Division regular-season champion Lehigh Valley Phantoms (104 points) to earn this date with Texas.
The Stars had to push through nine overtime games to emerge from the Western Conference. They had to fend off the Rockford IceHogs in the conference finals and go through the Pacific Division champion Tucson Roadrunners in the second round.
Texas also possesses abundant playoff experience. Captain Curtis McKenzie along with forwards Travis Morin and Justin Dowling each won the Calder Cup with Texas in 2014. Goaltender Mike McKenna took the Syracuse Crunch to the Calder Cup Finals last year.
THE REAL THING
But pre-scouts and video review of an unknown opponent are no replacement for finally lining up next to an opponent in front of a sold-out building.
“They’re really efficient in their game,” Stars head coach Derek Laxdal said of the Marlies.
For their part, the Stars frustrated the Marlies for large stretches of the game. Already leading 4-2 late in the second period, the Stars could have taken it to 5-2 if not for Marlies goaltender Garret Sparks stopping Sheldon Dries on a shorthanded breakaway.
Even the formidable likes of Lehigh Valley and Syracuse could not put up the fight that Texas did in Game 1. Texas presented an entirely new level of resistance for the Marlies.
“They’re just like us,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said of Texas. “There are no shifts off. They’re coming all the time. That’s a different feel from what we’ve had. We’ve been really able to establish ourselves in games and take over.”
“We haven’t had a team push back that hard on us. We were expecting that coming in, but it’s a whole other thing to get out there on the ice and play against it.”
“It’s going to be a lot harder for us to do that in this series.”
Still, while there abundant mutual respect, that is as far as the admiration will go.
“We’ve got four lines that we feel can play against any of their [lines],” Laxdal said.
Said Keefe, “I think it’s a sign of where we’re at as a team. We’re playing in this series for a reason, and that is because of our depth.”
Now Keefe and Laxdal have had a chance to see their opponents live, do any necessary last-minute tinkering, and take another shot in Game 2.
“They’re four lines deep,” Laxdal said. “We’re four lines deep. It’s two good teams going at it.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.