• In the hunt: Stars making late playoff push behind Lehtonen’s recent surge

    The Dallas Stars have won eight of their last 10 games and are currently riding a three game winning streak. They are undoubtedly playing their best hockey of the season at just the right time.

    Yet, the Stars (34-28-10) still remain 6 points behind the Calgary Flames for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.

    The late run has been sparked by the stellar net minding of goalie Kari Lehtonen, who has a 1.98 goals against average (GAA) and a save percentage of .925 in the month of March.

    It’s no secret that things haven’t gone to plan for Lehtonen and the Stars this year. Pre-season, the Stars were a hot pick to not only make the playoffs, but to have a decent chance of advancing into the deeper rounds come spring.

    “Luck hasn’t been on my side too much this year, so maybe now it’s turned” Lehtonen said after a recent 33-save shutout of the Chicago Blackhawks.

    There have been times in which the 31-year-old Finnish goaltender has played well, but the puck still managed to find its way over the wrong side of the goal line.

    Other times, Lehtonen’s performance has simply outraged fans and team members alike.

    Just last month, Stars’ head coach Lindy Ruff was clearly frustrated with Lehtonen’s play. 

    “The goaltending performance doesn’t match the effort of the team,” Ruff remarked after a 5-4 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. “Our goaltending has been tough on our team, and I think that’s where the frustration is.”

    While Ruff is right in saying that Lehtonen has struggled mightily at times this year it is unfair to place the entire blame for the Stars’ lack of achievement on the goalie.

    Furthermore, the blame in no way should be put on the offense. The Stars are currently second in the entire NHL with 3.1 goals scored per game.

    Rather, it is the Stars’ defensive efforts that have been subpar all season long. The team currently ranks 26th in goals allowed per game at 3.2. While it might be true that the goalie plays a significant part this statistic, so does a team’s defense.

    The return of big defenseman Patrick Nemeth from an arm laceration injury that had him out for over 4 months has helped the Stars revamp their depleted blue line.

    Nemeth returned on March 3, a 3-2-overtime victory over the New York Islanders. In the 10 games that Nemeth has played since returning, the Stars are only giving up an average of 2.3 goals per game, almost an entire goal lower than their season long average of 3.2.

    More experience for defensive rookies John Klingberg and Jyrki Jokipakka has also been instrumental to the Stars’ improved play recently. The duo has been playing far better of late than they did early on in the year.

    With little surprise, Lehtonen attributes his recent success to a total team effort. “We’ve been working a little bit on being more aggressive when there’s traffic,” Lehtonen said. “That’s been working pretty good.” 

    When the team plays better defensively in front of Lehtonen, it is easier for the big Fin to see the puck more clearly. And when Lehtonen is seeing the puck well, it leads to the superb play we have seen from him of late.

    With only nine games left in the season and no control over what the teams in front of them in the standings accomplish, the Stars certainly need to help Lehtonen continue his exceptional performance.

    If they don’t, expect to see the Stars watching at home during the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years. 

  • Longhorns take first two games in Arkansas

    After defeating Arkansas, 87, in extra innings Saturday, the Longhorns drifted past the Razorbacks, 112, in the second game of the three-game series Sunday.

    Senior Gabby Smith showed no sign of soreness from the mound as she struck out three and allowed just one earned run over six innings.

    “The biggest thing about Gabby is she can do so many things for us,” head coach Connie Clark said in a media availability Thursday. “For us right now, she is probably the single most key to our success as we go down the stretch.”

    Texas' offense has been solid in the first two games of the series with a .350 overall batting average and 19 runs. The Longhorns tallied 13 hits alone Sunday.

    Texas plays Arkansas for the final game of the sequence at 8 p.m. Monday.

  • MLS Touchline- Week One

    Friday marks the start of the 20th season for Major League Soccer.

    Or at least it should.

    Currently, there is still no CBA, Collective Bargaining Agreement, between MLS and the players, which, if unresolved by Friday, could result in a player’s strike and games not being played.

    But we’re going to  go on the assumption that the games will be played as scheduled this weekend.

    This season should be an exciting and intriguing year for MLS as soccer is at an all-time high in the U.S. after a tremendous showing in television ratings for the World Cup last year and heightened popularity of the English Premiere League.

    Attendance last year for MLS was up across the league, if you take away the stats from now-defunct Chivas U.S.A. The average attendance for the league was just over 19,000, which is roughly near capacity for most of the teams’ stadiums (CenturyLink Field obviously notwithstanding).

    There are a number of key storylines going into this year that should keep things intriguing from March to Decemeber. (We’re going to hold off on the CBA issue here.)

    First, there are the two new teams coming into this season: New York City F.C., a joint venture between Manchester City and the New York Yankees, and Orlando City F.C. The intrigue here is both on and off the pitch. Both teams ought to do well with their solid rosters and the fact that they’re both in the weaker Eastern Conference. And then there’s the attendance watch for both teams in their first years. Orlando has already announced that their first match on Sunday, coincidently enough against New York City, at the Citrus Bowl is sold out. Whether that keeps up and whether New York City can put up good numbers at Yankee Stadium will be something to keep an eye on.

    Then there’s the Western Conference that, much like it’s NBA counterpart, is absolutely stacked with competitors. Last year the conference produced about six or seven teams that would have made the postseason had they been in the Eastern Conference. That goes off both points and the fact they would have had an easier schedule. This year it only gets stronger with the addition of Houston and Sporting Kansas City, though MLS has added an extra playoff slot for each conference which helps. It’s still a long season, but I’d venture a guess that there are four to five teams in the conference with a legitimate shot to win the MLS Cup and another two that could be contenders.

    Within that conference are two teams are the biggest contenders to win it all, each with its own big storyline.

    First, the Los Angeles Galaxy are going to have to figure out a way to play without Landon Donovan, who retired after last year. The Galaxy are in a good spot, however, with Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes up front on the attack. Still, it’s worth watching to see how the defending champs without the league’s best player.

    And then there’s the Seattle Sounders who, despite their regular season success, find their trophy cabinet MLS Cup-less. Last year the Sounders were one round away from making it to the MLS Cup final, but fell short to the Galaxy. Seattle returns the same basic squad, minus defender Deandre Yedlin, so expect them to be contenders this season.

    These storylines, along with a host of others, will (hopefully) be answered this year in what will likely be the best season in the history of the league.

    That season has to start without a strike, but hopefully those differences are settled before the season begins or without a work stoppage. But that’s another story for another day.

    Predictions

    ·      Supporters’ Shield – Seattle

    ·      Western Conference playoff teams – Seattle, Los Angeles, Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Houston

    ·      Eastern Conference playoff teams – D.C. United, Orlando City, New York City F.C., New England, Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls

    ·      MLS Cup matchup – Seattle vs. Orlando City

    ·      MLS Cup Winner – Seattle

    Power Rankings

    1.    Seattle – The Seattle Sounders were the best team in the regular season last year, taking home the Supporter’s Shield and winning the U.S. Open Cup. But the Sounders couldn’t quite catch that elusive MLS Cup title that has dogged them the past few years. This year they’re set up once again to be favorites to take the title with forwards midfielder, and Texan, Clint Dempsey and forward Obafemi Martins, as well as a talented supporting cast. With the experience and passionate fan base, Seattle has to be considered a top team in MLS, if only for the start of the season.

    2.    Los Angeles – The Galaxy will take a hit in their chance to repeat with U.S. legend Landon Donovan retiring, but there’s more to this team than Donovan. Forwards Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes made a significant impact up front for Los Angeles last year and will again team up to be a potent attacking duo. Add in Steven Gerrard at the summer transfer window and the Galaxy are in a great spot to repeat as champs once again.

    3.    Orlando City – Of the two expansion teams joining the league this season, Orlando City is the most likely to make some noise and potentially find itself in a position to make it to the MLS Cup. Of course, everyone knows about Brazilian forward Kaka, but City features more than that. Orlando should set in goal with Jamaican national team goalie Donovan Rickets. And if midfielder Brek Shea can find the same success he had a few years ago with FC Dallas, City might have a solid attack.

    4.    New York City F.C. – Of course, the biggest name team coming into this year is New York City F.C. under the combined ownership of Manchester City and the New York Yankees. While some uncertainty still looms over whether or not midfielder Frank Lampard will make the transfer from Manchester, City have a solid team in place anyway with forward David Villa, midfielder Mix Diskerud and defender George John. With a relatively weak Eastern Conference, NYC F.C. will certainly be contenders to make it to the MLS Cup.

    5.    Sporting Kansas City – Last year was a disappointment for Sporting K.C., dropping out of the postseason in the wild card round a year after making it to the MLS Cup. And things won’t get much easier for them this season either as Kansas City, along with Houston, make the jump to the stacked Western Conference. Still, SKC boasts of U.S. national team players midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler, and forward Dom Dwyer became a force to be reckoned with last year. It won’t be easy in the Western Conference, but Sporting will not be an easier out for anybody this season.

    The Bench – 6. Real Salt Lake, 7. New York Red Bulls, 8. D.C. United, 9. Houston, 10. FC Dallas

    Games to Watch

    ·      New York City F.C. at Orlando City, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2
    Great scheduling from the MLS scheduling crew resulted in the two expansion teams facing off against each other to start off the season. But while it seems like a gimmick, this should still be a great match. Both teams come is as contenders right off the bat to top the Eastern Conference. Both teams also feature big names such as Kaka and Villa. This game should be the best game of the weekend.

    ·      New England at Seattle, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox Sports 1
    Of the teams we know about and are returning, this should be the best match of the weekend. New England was oh so close to coming away with the MLS Cup last year, falling in the final minutes to Los Angeles. The Revolution have a bright star in midfielder Lee Nguyen and also feature U.S. national team defender Jermaine Jones. Seattle, as mentioned earlier, have been close to getting to the MLS Cup, but have yet to fulfill that goal. With the great Seattle fans providing the backdrop, this should be a fun one.

    Rest of the Schedule

    ·      Chicago at Los Angeles – 9 p.m., Friday, MLS Live, UniMas

    ·      Montreal at D.C. United – 2 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

    ·      Colorado at Philadelphia – 3 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

    ·      Toronto F.C. at Vancouver – 5 p.m., Satuday, MLS Live

    ·      San Jose at FC Dallas – 7:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

    ·      Columbus at Houston – 7:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

    ·      Real Salt Lake at Portland – 9:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

    ·      New York Red Bulls at Sporting Kansas City – 6:00 p.m., Fox Sports 1

  • Stadium Series provides excitement for fans, players

    The Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks clashed in an inter-state rivalry game a few weekends ago, and the reigning Stanley Cup Champions emerged victorious with a 2-1 victory over their enemy to the north.

    However, the game had a different venue than usual. Rather than the Staples Center in Los Angeles or the SAP Center in San Jose playing host to the matchup, the battle took place at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, the home of the San Francisco 49ers.

    The temperature during the day in Santa Clara was in the 70s, and the puck-drop temperature was 57 degrees Fahrenheit-- not quite typical hockey weather.

    Although not completely commonplace, this is not a particularly new spectacle for the NHL. The most familiar locations for Stadium Series games are cold weather cities such as New York and Chicago. Recently, however, the NHL has experimented with playing regular season games in more temperate climates.

    The successes couldn’t be better.

    Bringing hockey to hotter outdoor climates is not the only enticing feature of the Stadium Series.  Live intermission performances by California’s own John Fogerty and the Grammy-winning Melissa Etheridge kept fans entertained even when the greatest game on ice was momentarily paused.

    The NHL has played 15 outdoor games since the 2003-04 season primarily to engage current fans and to create new ones. Levi’s Stadium filled beyond capacity for this year’s tilt with more than 70,000 people in attendance.

    Yet, the memories made at outdoor games are not just owned by the fans. The players that compete in front of these record crowds will certainly never forget their experiences, either.

    "It was incredible. From start to finish, what an atmosphere," said Sharks captain Joe Thornton after the game. "It was a once in-a-lifetime-type thing for us.”

    Sharks coach Todd McLellan also enjoyed the experience. 

    “You talk about moments where the hair stands up on your neck," McLellan said, "and tonight was one of those moments.”

    The fact that both teams are tied in the Western Conference standings and are currently battling each other for a playoff birth did not seem to matter that Saturday night. Getting the opportunity to play hockey outdoors in front of a large number of passionate fans is something that even professional players and coaches cannot take for granted.

    "The fact we lost was disappointing," McLellan admitted. "But to be part of it, I wouldn't trade it for anything."

  • Austin Spurs find themselves while Stars continue to struggle

    After a difficult start to the last week, the Austin Spurs bounced back on Thursday night beating the Reno Bighorns, 112-104. 

    Trailing at halftime 59-50, the Spurs stormed back in the third quarter outscoring and out rebounding the Bighorns, 37-25 and 56-37, respectively, to give them a lead they would hang on to.   

    Jonathan Simmons scored 24 points for the Spurs as Kyle Anderson recording his 11th double-double of the season with 17 points and 14 rebounds. 

    Austin’s Orlando Johnson nearly finished with a triple double with 22 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists.

    Previously in the week, the Spurs’ nine-game win streak came to an end Tuesday losing to the Santa Cruz Warriors, 109-94. Five Warriors scored in double digits, led by Elliot Williams with 30 points, 8 assists, and 4 rebounds.

    James Michael McAdoo, rookie out of North Carolina, broke out by scoring 29 points on 12 of 15 shooting, eight rebounds, and three blocks. 

    Erik Murphy for the Spurs tallied 31 points and 19 points and Johnson scored 21 points.  The Spurs, however, were trying to adjust after losing guard Bryce Cotton to a 10-day contract with the Utah Jazz.

    On Saturday, the Spurs began their six-game week with a win against the Texas Legends while they continued their streak with another victory Monday Westchester.

    However, last week was even more difficult for the Texas Stars after losing forward Brendan Ranford to the Dallas Stars.  Goalies Jack Campbell and Henrik Kiviaho were also sent to the Stars ECHL affiliate, Idaho Steelheads.       

    Ranford will be a loss as he is fourth on the team in scoring with 13 goals and second on the team with 36 points (13 points and 23 assists).

    Tuesday on the road against the Oklahoma City Barons, the Stars came up short losing in overtime 3-2. Just 1:39 into the game, the Stars scored quickly as Eric Failie was able to handle the pass in the neutral zone from Scott Valentine. 

    Julius Honka later scored his own goal at the 9:33 mark of the second period, but Brandon Davidson turned the game around as he helped get the Barons on the scoreboard before the half. 

    Both offenses were quiet for the rest of the game until Jason Williams scored his 16th goal of the season for the Barons to tie the game in regulation. Eventually, Andrew Miller’s wrist shot from the left circle was able to sneak past Jussi Rynnas to give the Barons the win in overtime.  

    This past weekend, the Stars returned to the ice with two back-to-back losses, including one in overtime, against Rockford. 

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