McKenzie, Stars remain focused on goal

Photo: Andy Nietupski

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

As challenging as times have been for the Texas Stars, captain Curtis McKenzie knows that even more obstacles await.

Players don’t come much more playoff-tested than McKenzie. The 11th-year pro has made three trips to the Calder Cup Finals, winning a championship as a rookie in 2014.

This year’s postseason is less than a month away, and simply locking down a berth is going to be a test for teams around the AHL – including Texas. The Stars’ mission is clear: secure at least third place in the Central Division and avoid having to play the best-of-three first-round series that awaits the division’s fourth- and fifth-place clubs.

Going into league play tonight, the Stars are one point behind Rockford for third in the Central. That’s the glass-half-full look at their situation.

The counterpoint is that the fifth-place Manitoba Moose are just six points behind Texas and moving quickly.

The Stars need some breathing room, and this situation is rather different from where they found themselves earlier in the season. Three months ago, the Stars had every reason to think they would be competing for a division title, rather than worrying about a possible best-of-three series. On New Year’s morning, the Stars were 18-7-2-1 and in first place in the Central, four points ahead of Milwaukee and 11 clear of Grand Rapids and Rockford.

But the second half of the season hasn’t been so kind. The Stars have stumbled, going 11-20-2-1 since the calendar turned to 2024. Milwaukee, by contrast, is 24-9-0-0 in that time.

Texas has played the last month without standout rookie Logan Stankoven, who was leading the AHL in scoring with 57 points before he made his NHL debut on Feb. 24. Stankoven has 11 points in 15 games with Dallas, which leads the NHL’s Western Conference; any timeline for his return to Texas, if it does happen, is far from clear.

And beyond Stankoven’s promotion, the Texas lineup lost Riley Damiani and Artem Grushnikov to trades, and has gone without Gavin Bayreuther, Nicholas Caamano, Scott Reedy and Chase Wheatcroft for long stretches. Even the durable McKenzie, who missed a total of nine games over the previous five season, was recently out of the lineup for three weeks.

So there are perfectly logical reasons that the Stars have been through this up-and-down second half. But there also are plenty of good reasons for hope. Mavrik Bourque has passed Stankoven for the AHL scoring lead with 69 points in 62 games. Matej Blumel has put up 26 goals and 53 points. The Stars rank first in the league on the power play (23.0 percent), and are tied for fourth in overall scoring at 3.37 goals per game.

And they have a gamer like McKenzie. Now in his second go-round with Texas after stints with Chicago (2018-20) and Utica (2020-21), he helped lead the Stars to division title last season before they fell to Milwaukee in a Central Division Finals series that went the distance.

Texas is back home after a five-game road trip that yielded only three points against Tucson, Coachella Valley and San Diego, but left McKenzie encouraged.

“They push the pace very well,” McKenzie said of the Firebirds, who beat the Stars in overtime on Mar. 20 and needed a late third-period rally to win again on Sunday. “We showed we can play with them, so that should be a confidence boost for our group. If we can stay with them, we should be able to with every other team.

“It gives us that confidence that we can go head-to-head with anybody when we’re on our game. It should be something for us to build on.”

McKenzie liked what he saw from the group on the Pacific Division trip in general.

“[We had] seemed to lose our identity as a team,” he said. “Now we’ve got the bodies back, and we’re finding it. We’re really happy with the last week of how our team played and excited for the last 10-game push here.”

The Stars begin a six-game homestand Friday, a stretch that will feature two-game sets against Iowa, Colorado and Milwaukee. Re-establishing a strong home-ice presence is key for the club, who are 15-10-2-1 at H-E-B Center this season. The Wild will come to Cedar Park fighting to stay alive in the playoff chase, the Eagles are on a 21-6-0-1 run, and the Admirals are looking to wrap up the Central Division.

“This is my favorite time of the year,” McKenzie said. “[I’m] just trying to pass on the knowledge that I’ve learned to the other guys, just show them the importance of this time of the season and playoff time, how much they can do for your career.”

Being pushed out of the postseason last year by Milwaukee still stings for McKenzie. Last season’s roster went through significant offseason change, but there is enough of a returning core – McKenzie and Bourque among them – to still recall that feeling.

“It was heartbreaking for us,” McKenzie acknowledged. “We thought we had a team that could have gone all the way. Milwaukee had a very loaded team and a great, great group at that.

“You just want to take the sting of losing and carry that on into this year, where you don’t want to lose your last game. I think that the biggest thing is to hold on to that, the feeling of losing and anguish of that and have the desperation to win.”