For the first time in each teams respective franchise histories, the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins and Texas Stars will meet up, in the same arena, playing a competitive hockey game where two points are on the line.
To mark this momentous occasion, Stephen Meserve from the website 100 Degree Hockey reached out to me this week and asked me a bunch of questions about the Penguins. You can find that here. In return, I asked Meserve some questions myself about the Stars.
I’m low key excited about this first time meeting between these two teams who have been in the American Hockey League for more than ten seasons (Stars debuted in 2009-10) meeting for the very first time. Let’s get right to it.
Jason Iacona: Texas sit at 7-13-1-2 which included twelve games without a win. The Stars only have four regulation wins so far too. What’s been the main reason for the slow start?
Stephen Meserve: Texas bet big on prospects. Really big. The Stars lost major chunk of their scoring from last year when Justin Dowling, Travis Morin and Erik Condra all departed through various routes (promotion, retirement, signing elsewhere). With some flashy rookies and European signings coming in, Texas went all in on a roster with nine rookie players and 11 total playing their first season in the AHL. Inconsistency and a tendency, during the losing streak, to get down on themselves and let a one-goal deficit drain them and turn into a 2 or 3 goal one were both fatal. They’ve gotten better at that, and it’s turning into wins as their resiliency is kicking in.
JI: The Stars are riding a five game point streak, beating Rockford and Iowa twice before losing narrowly to white hot Milwaukee in OT Sunday and then ending the Admirals 13 game winning streak in impressive fashion Tuesday. I caught the second period of that game and saw the Stars score four goals on all four shots in that period against a Milwaukee side that have not been dominated like that. Has a switch been flipped or is it a style meeting a fight type of thing with this five game point streak you’ve been on?
SM: Coming off the last answer, it’s about the team believing in itself. Losing streaks are as much about lack of confidence as anything. Use whatever trite phrase you want.. “gripping their sticks too hard” comes to mind. But the players felt it. It took a barn burner 7-6 SO win against Rockford to break the streak, but the room was like they’d won the Cup after that victory. The true test was against Milwaukee, where they earned 3 of 4 points, got amazing goaltending and saw their prospects contribute. That’s what is going to take them to the playoffs, if they make it.
JI: Seems like since Travis Morin retired, that left a huge hole in the leadership end of things which have gone a long way in the slow start, as someone looking at the team from 1,670 miles away here in Wilkes-Barre. You have had recalls as any AHL team has and have tinkered with the lineup with trading for Anthony Louis. Is it still a work in progress or, since you’re coming East riding a five game point streak, finally starting to come together for Texas?
SM: It’s really coming together. Texas signed veteran center Tanner Kero in the offseason but he’s been snakebitten in the scoring department, goals at least, and is now injured. Michael Mersch is coming on a bit more recently but hasn’t stepped up as the team would have liked. The team is a work in progress, but the big thing that led to that aforementioned 7-6 win was the lineup shuffle that Texas Stars head coach Derek Laxdal did. He noted that certain players were not contributing up to expectations and healthy scratched four: Ben Gleason, Adam Mascherin, Tye Felhaber* and Brad McClure. The motivation worked. As they’ve filtered back into the lineup, they’ve contributed. For example, Adam Mascherin has goals in back-to-back games now after scoring only one in the previous 19.
Edit: Felhaber was assigned to the ECHL last night after this Q&A was completed.
JI: Looks like Landon Bow and Jake Oettinger have split the starts for the Stars in net for Texas. Was that the plan coming into the season?
SM: Bow is the grizzled veteran for Texas at all of 24 years old. I talked to him before the season and he noted that many clubs are going this route in the AHL as the ‘journeyman’ goalie becomes less and less common. He welcomes the challenge. Oettinger is a raw rookie, coming out of BU after his junior season. He had been on the bench for a bit recently as Texas looked to break the streak. He credited Texas Stars goalie coach Jim Bedard for working with him the last few weeks to get him ready for a return, where he stopped a career high 39 en route to a 5-1 win. You can say 1a/1b as far as the plan, but it’s clear based on usage that when things get tough, Texas is going to lean on Bow. He wants to have a big year to make it clear that he is the next in line for the backup role behind Ben Bishop. Anton Khudobin’s contract expires this year, and the role is open if he wants it. Oettinger is the Dallas heir apparent at this moment, so he’ll be in Cedar Park for a while.
JI: Give fans here in Wilkes-Barre a player to watch on the Stars this weekend.
SM: OK, I’m going to break the rules a bit here. I’ll give one forward and one defenseman… and a bonus. At forward, #18 Jason Robertson is one of those highly touted rookies. He led all of major junior in points last year and is just heating up for Texas. On defense, Emil Djuse is a European import who is known for his offensive knack. He has 14 points in 23 games and is #2 in team scoring. He freely admits he is still adjusting in the defensive zone, which also makes him interesting to watch. Finally, a wildcard: Diego Cuglietta. I think staff writer Ryan Pennington summarized it best when he said, “It may not always work out for him, but Diego Cuglietta always plays every shift like he won’t get another.” If that is true, he’s definitely an entertaining watch. However, he may not get as many shifts as Laxdal is running three lines hot in this point streak. Cuglietta centers the fourth line.
JI: Besides the San Antonio Rampage, give me the Stars biggest rival.
SM: This is an interesting one. Hot take alert, but I wouldn’t even consider San Antonio to be the biggest rival of Texas if we’re being honest. Don’t rivals have to be good at the same time at least once in their history? Texas and San Antonio have never made the playoffs in the same year in the eleven years that they’ve been in the league together. But back to the question, oddly the Rockford IceHogs are a team that Texas always seems to step up a level against. They have had a few playoff matchups but the regular season has been nasty as well. The 7-6 win to break the streak was against Rockford for example. I’m sure Stars fans would have other opinions. While they were still in the league, I think Houston or OKC were better rivals.
You can follow Stephen on Twitter @100DegreeHockey
Gameday setup for Friday’s contest against Texas hits the blog later at 3 p.m.