by Patrick Williams
This is it.
For the AHL, 1,182 games come down to Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals between the Texas Stars and Toronto Marlies.
For Texas, the Stars are trying to win their second Calder Cup. For the home-standing Marlies, a victory would crown an exceptional season and also make them the first Toronto Maple Leafs affiliate to lift the Calder Cup since the New Brunswick Hawks did so in 1982.
A 5-2 Texas win on Tuesday set up tonight’s date, the first Game 7 in a Finals since 2003. That year, the Houston Aeros defeated the Hamilton Bulldogs.
For the players and coaches involved, there will be all sorts of emotions involved and lessons to draw from tonight.
For Texas Stars goaltender Mike McKenna, after 461 regular-season AHL games and 66 more in the postseason in a pro career dating to the 2005-06 season, it all comes down to tonight.
A Calder Cup championship would conclude a fantastic two-month run for the 35-year-old veteran. His excellent work in the first round against the Ontario Reign allowed the Stars to iron out a few team wrinkles and set the stage for the rest of this run.
He has played an AHL-leading 21 playoff games this spring and also tops all goaltenders in minutes (1,312) and wins (14). He has a 2.29 goals-against average to go with his .929 save percentage.
This is McKenna’s first opportunity at Cup-clinching game. Last season with the Syracuse Crunch, he went to Game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals trailing 3-2 in the series against the Grand Rapids Griffins, who closed out the series.
On Tuesday night, McKenna’s 43-save effort pulled the Stars into Game 7. The Marlies buzzed through the Texas defense in the first period, taking a 16-4 lead in shots on the Stars, but McKenna held them scoreless.
That set the stage for a three-goal second period for Texas that sent them on their way.
Toronto won the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy with 112 points, 22 more than Texas posted. But the Stars have taken three games – two of them at Ricoh Coliseum – from this Marlies team and relished the underdog role along the way.
“I think we’ve definitely embraced it,” McKenna said. “I think we like it.
“We’ve clearly hit our stride here. [There is] a ton of grit, a ton of determination with our guys. We play for each other. We’re so close in that room.”
What would Calder Cup mean for McKenna?
Even McKenna, always exceptionally thoughtful in interviews, could not quite define that possible feeling.
“Ask me afterwards,” he replied. “I think I know, but I’ve never won it. It’s one of those things where I think you can only dream of what it would feel like.
“A championship would mean everything.”
The Texas captain has a league-leading 11 playoff goals, but Curtis McKenzie has also led the way with a relentlessly physical style.
“We’ve done it before,” McKenzie said. Morin, Dowling, and I have really tried to push each other this playoff series because we are the guys who have won in Texas.
“You’ve been through different situations and seen different things, and you just have to make sure that you’re playing the right way and saying the right things to make sure that the guys are following.”
Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe is never one to bask in victory or wallow in defeat.
He hit those same notes Tuesday after Game 6 and shared that message with his dressing room.
“We let an opportunity get away from us, but it’s over,” Keefe said.
Throughout the postseason, Keefe has almost welcomed the opportunity to see his talented team confront challenges and find solutions. But now the time has come to just win.
“We’re done growing,” Keefe said. “It’s time to play and get it done.
“We’re excited for the chance to play. We earned the opportunity to have two cracks at this.”
Marlies veteran defenseman Vincent LoVerde captained the Manchester Monarchs to a Calder Cup in 2015.
Now he is trying to duplicate it, and he has some lessons to draw from that experience.
“I learned that every shift you have to be ready to compete, ready to go, ready to win your shift,” LoVerde said. “I learned that the compete level has to be very, very high every single shift. No shifts off.”
Marlies goaltender Garret Sparks had a very rare off night in Game 6.
Texas chased him 3:08 into the third period after center Sheldon Dries finished a shorthanded breakaway for a 4-1 lead.
Sparks showed no signs of shaken confidence after the game, however.
“Extremely high,” he replied — rather emphatically — to reporters when asked about his confidence level.
Sparks has ample reason to be confident. The Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award winner as the AHL’s top goaltender in the regular season, he has gone 13-5 in the playoffs with a 2.29 GAA and .912 save percentage.
“We’re a resilient team, and I like our odds in Game 7.”
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 was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.