CEDAR PARK — Curtis McKenzie and Brett Ritchie would rather be in Dallas chasing a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But after 5-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday — a near death sentence to Dallas’ dwindling playoff hopes — McKenzie and Ritchie are ready to embrace a leadership role with the Texas Stars, starting tonight against Calgary’s AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Flames.
“They kind of told us to just come down here and grow as a leadership role on the team,” McKenzie said. “Just get ready for playoffs. We’re expecting a big run with the team we have here. So we’re just getting back into the groove with this team … getting some more minutes and scoring some goals again.”
The duo — who happen to share an apartment in Austin — haven’t found the back of an NHL net since Ritchie scored on March 19. McKenzie’s goal-less streak is even longer, dating back to March 12.
Even with the goal drought, both players gained valuable experience as Dallas made a mad dash for the playoffs in March.
“I think I’ve learned a lot,” Ritchie said. “I thought we had a pretty good run there toward the end. It just fell short with couple blown points early on in the year.”
It wasn’t the sole reason, but their NHL playing time reflected their offensive output. Instead of playing nine minutes, like they did Monday, both will get top-six minutes tonight, while McKenzie will also be on Texas’ power play and penalty kill.
“It’s a tough transition coming down from the National Hockey League and back down to the American League,” Stars coach Derek Laxdal said. “You’re trying to find the game. We’ll expect them to find their way a little bit tonight, and it allows us to run four pretty deep lines.”
It may be the best forward group Texas has dressed this season.
In addition to McKenzie and Ritchie, Valeri Nichushkin will play his final game with Texas tonight. Greg Rallo, Brendan Ranford, and Scott Glennie, traditionally on the first or second lines, have been dropped to third and fourth line roles.
That should be an advantage against Adirondack, which plays a similar style to it’s parent club — aggressive on the penalty kill, but conservative during even strength play.
“We watched them in Rockford a couple weeks ago,” Laxdal said. “They had a couple 2-on-1s, breakaways, and 3-on-2s. You have to be ready for that and we need to use our speed to our advantage.”
Tonight will also be Taylor Vause’s return to the Cedar Park Center.
Vause played 84 games for Texas during the past three seasons and was on the Calder Cup winning team in 2014. He has four goals this season, but two came against Texas back on Dec. 5 when Adirondack won 3-2 in upstate New York.
“It’s definitely a weird feeling,” Vause said. “It’s amplified when you come here. That was a pretty good game for me (in December against Texas) … it’s going to be interesting to be back, but it’s going to be fun.”