by Patrick Williams
June means hot weather.
Lately it also means goaltender Mike McKenna taking a team to the Calder Cup Finals.
For the second consecutive season, McKenna will have a very late finish to his season.
This season, he has the Texas Stars two wins away from what would be his first championship. Last year, the Syracuse Crunch added McKenna at the NHL trade deadline, and he helped to lead them to Game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals against the Grand Rapids Griffins.
McKenna’s 29-save night in Game 4 helped to carry Texas to a 3-2 win against the Toronto Marlies at H-E-B Center that evened the series, 2-2. Game 5 is tonight on Texas ice (8 p.m. ET, TSN2, NHL Network, Leafs Nation Network, Fox Sports Southwest, NHL Network Radio) before the series moves back to Toronto for Game 6 Tuesday.
The 35-year-old veteran of 461 regular-season AHL games has taken over the Stars’ number-one goaltending job from prospect Landon Bow for the postseason and has validated head coach Derek Laxdal’s decision to go with experience.
In 32 regular-season games, McKenna went 17-9-4 with a 2.64 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. He also managed two games in net for the parent Dallas Stars and won his first NHL game since the 2013-14 season.
However, in the postseason, McKenna has gone 13-6 in 19 games and fashioned a 2.13 GAA and a .933 save percentage. His work has helped lead Texas past the Ontario Reign, Tucson Roadrunners and Rockford IceHogs to earn this series with the Marlies.
“The thing for Mike is experience,” Laxdal said of McKenna, who has played 64 career AHL playoff games. “He is a really calm customer. He doesn’t get rattled.
“He has been here. If you watch him at a TV timeout when he goes back to the bench, he’s not rattled. I think our team takes on that personality, and I really like the way our guys play for him.”
Texas has played a league-high nine overtime games on this postseason run, going 7-2. That experience, in McKenna’s mind, has set up the Stars well for a series against Toronto in which every game has been a one-goal decision. Texas has also had to face Toronto twice rallying from a two-goal deficit, including late in the second period in Game 4.
“I think you forge that [comfort] in the season,” McKenna said. “I think that’s something that they learn to embrace as they grind goes on. I think that ours was accelerated because of how many overtimes games were played this year. You get used to playing in high-pressure situations.”
The Marlies entered the series with a long list of impressive playoff feats, but with a strong veteran base that includes McKenna, Texas has not looked intimidated at all.
“We’re down to the final two teams, so whoever is going to be on the other side of the ice is going to be good,” McKenna said.
“Credit to our guys. We just play so hard. We just are always there in games, we stick around, we battle.”
Much of what results on the ice starts with a strong foundation inside the Texas dressing room in McKenna’s mind.
“There are no cliques,” he said. “Everybody is friends and teammates. You see everybody go to dinner with different groups. I think that anybody in that room knows that any time they can lean on their teammate and friend.
“You see that all the time, and it’s really special.”
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.