The “Texas two-step” is a popular dance in country/western circles in the state of Texas, and on Thursday night at Giant Center, the Texas Stars slowed down the normally high tempo Hershey Bears offense to a slow waltz and left the dance floor with a 1-0 series lead.
By virtue of their defeat, the Bears dropped their first game one of the 2010 playoffs, and now find themselves trailing in a series for the first time in this current post-season.
Coming off an elongated layoff after punching their ticket to the finals with a victory over the Manchester Monarchs on May 22, the Bears crawled out of the gate in the first period and registered only two shots against Texas goaltender, Matt Climie. The single-digit shot total in the first period marked the 26th regulation period that the Bears had failed to reach double digits, with 10 of those occurring in a first period of action.
“Especially in the first period, we seemed to get some opportunities where we brought the puck into scoring areas, but we tried to be too cute and make that one more pass, instead of one less pass and one more shot,” said Hershey coach, Mark French.
Hershey’s leading goal scorer, Alexandre Giroux, who recorded only two shots on goal in the game, and none in the first period, said the Bears anemic first period shot total was a combination of their own ineptness and the Stars’ defensive prowess.
“They play their system really well and they are really patient. We would have liked to come out a little harder, but they were blocking a lot of shots and when the shots weren’t going up, we tried to do some things that made it too hard, but we settled down and got it going later,” said Giroux.
Meanwhile at the other end of the ice, Hershey netminder, Michal Neuvirth, faced a dozen first period shots with the last one being the best of the bunch. Neuvirth, who is the league’s reigning playoff MVP, denied Jamie Benn’s point-blank bid in the final fifteen seconds of the frame. Benn, the AHL’s leading playoff point producer entering the contest, was sent in alone on Neuvirth by former Bear, Travis Morin, who intercepted Karl Alzner’s attempted clearing pass just inside the blueline late in Texas’ second power play of the game.
Early in the second period, Hershey’s sensational sophomores, Mathieu Perreault and Francois Bouchard, pooled their collective talents to give Hershey the first goal of the game at 4:23. Bouchard, after receiving a pretty pass from Perreault, who deftly threaded a pass between a pair of Texas defenders to get the puck on his stick, looked to be headed towards the corner with the biscuit, but banked hard to the left when he realized the Stars were giving him plenty of real estate to work with.
“Willie was crashing the net and Perry gave me a nice pass behind their defense. They gave me some room and I just cut hard to the net and slid it in the net,” said Bouchard.
Less than a minute after the Bouchard goal, Neuvirth made another high quality save, this one against Mathieu Beaudoin, but eventually yielded the tying goal at 9:57 when Greg Rallo rifled a wrist shot by his glove hand.
Although the two teams entered the third period deadlocked at one, Hershey’s chances didn’t look all that bad considering the fact that the Bears had outscored their opponents 13-3 in that frame at Giant Center in this playoff year; however, a costly Chris Bourque turnover early in the period culminated with the Stars getting the game-winning goal, an unassisted march by Scott McCulloch at 2:10.
“It was a bit of a high roll play with Chris Bourque and Sean Collins and it certainly didn’t work out the right way,” said French. “We gave them a break and he certainly made a nice play on the two-on-one.”
With the Bears facing the grim prospect of going down 2-0 in the series if they allow the Stars another victory in the next meeting between the clubs on Saturday night at Giant Center, Giroux says the key to not allowing that scenario to unfold is for his club to get out a fast start and then maintain that pace.
“We need to push the play for sixty minutes, not forty, and not beat ourselves. They play the same from the first minute to the last and they are very well coached. We need to throw more shots on net, and keep them on the defensive.”