Entering Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals there isn’t much separating the Texas Stars and Toronto Marlies.
Texas is a perfect 4-0 at home during the postseason and ousted the defending champs in six games. Toronto hasn’t lost in the postseason after sweeping the Milwaukee Admirals and Chicago Wolves.
“I don’t think there is an edge right now,” Stars coach Willie Desjardins said. “I think the edge comes from how hard you work on the ice. Both are good teams, I don’t see an edge. I see an edge having to be created in the games.”
Both Desjardins and Toronto coach Steve Spott said they expected their to be a “feeling out” process early in Game 1.
However, once things settle down Spott said he expects Texas to try and develop speed through the neutral zone — a facet of the game that helped the Stars knock off the defending champs.
“They thrive on when they score they score in bunches,” Spott said. “We’re going to have to make sure we keep this game structured and make sure that we don’t open up. They’re a team that can open it up, and we can’t do that.”
One of the reason’s Texas has been able to push the offensive pace has been the spark from its defensive pairings. While the Stars defenseman don’t tend to carry the puck the length of the ice, they do tend to spring outlet passes that open up space for Texas forwards to attack wide.
With that in mind, Spott said Toronto is going to have to apply pressure on the forecheck to limit Texas’ clean breakouts.
“What we have to do is get pucks in behind them,” Spott said. “If we turnover pucks and they become part of the rush they’re going to make it tough on us. We’ve got to make sure we get pucks in deep and guys like (Maxime) Fortunus, (Derek) Meech, and guys like (Cameron) Gaunce are up against the glass as much as possible and don’t have the ability to jump in.”
That also plays into Toronto’s offensive gameplan. Toronto hasn’t been nearly as penalized during the postseason as it was in the regular season, but the Marlies are an aggressive group that will try and create traffic in front of Stars goalie Cristopher Nilstorp.
“We’re not going to change our game plan,” Spott said. “We’ve got a heavy hockey club and we like to go to the net. We play with an aggression and we have to continue with that without taking penalties. We’ll make sure we’re getting pucks to the net and getting bodies (in front of Nilstorp).”
That puts more of an onus on Texas’ bigger defenseman — Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak — to take advantage of their size and strength to clear space in front Texas’ net and provide Nilstorp with clear sight lines.
Playing at home should help. Texas will have the last change in Game 1 and 2, and Texas has not lost at the Cedar Park Center in the playoffs.
“I think a lot of it comes from confidence and we’re confident at home,” Desjardins said of playing at home. “When you’re confident, you don’t hesitate and you go. And that gives you half (of) a step, and a half step can be real big in this game.”