While development is a big part of the AHL, it’s also the second-best league in the world for a reason. For all the rookies who dazzle in the short-term, you can’t forget the veterans who, when it comes to the post-season, often make the biggest impact. The Texas Stars are heading to Game 7 against the Toronto Marlies on Thursday and 35-year-old goaltender Mike McKenna is the reason.
In a must-win Game 6, McKenna repelled 16 shots in the first period alone, then held the fort once his teammates got him a lead in the second. All told, McKenna stopped 43 of 45 shots, many of which were high-quality chances that came off screens, deft passing plays or scrambles in tight.
“It’s been all playoffs with him,” said left winger Curtis McKenzie. “We wouldn’t have even got out of the first round without him. He went on a run last year and has brought that same mentality this playoffs. He’s been our MVP.”
Naturally, McKenna demurred on that idea. He is a hockey player, after all.
“Goaltending is funny,” he said. “This is a team sport and often we get micro-analyzed just by the goals-against and that’s such an unfair assessment of the person that plays. This is a really good team we’re playing and we’re a good team and we’re going to Game 7. Sometimes that’s the way it worked out.”
Cliched? Yes. But the way McKenna speaks is different from most players. There’s almost a sense of enlightenment in his voice and that probably comes through the journey. At the NHL level, he has made 24 appearances for a combined five franchises, while dressing as a backup for a sixth. Those games are spread out over nine seasons, with a high of 15 for Tampa Bay in 2008-09 and the most recent being two for Dallas this year. He has played in 11 different AHL cities during his pro career, which began in ECHL Las Vegas. He has never played in the same city for more than two years in a row.
For most of his career, McKenna struggled to find success, even at the AHL level. Until last year, his deepest playoff run had been in 2008 with the Portland Pirates - but J-S Aubin did the heavy lifting in net en route to the conference final.
But last season, McKenna guided the Syracuse Crunch to the Calder Cup final, where the team fell to Grand Rapids in six games. This year, he’s been even better for the Stars, stealing games and in some cases out-duelling AHL goalie of the year Garrett Sparks of the Marlies.
That was certainly the case in Game 6, when a locked-in McKenna rebounded from a bad Game 5 to stonewall Toronto, while Sparks made some questionable decisions and was yanked in the third period. When McKenna is on his game, he looks unflappable. He tracks the puck through traffic, he doesn’t make unnecessary movements and he anticipates well. So why is 35-year-old Mike McKenna better than 25-year-old Mike McKenna?
“Well, at 25 I don’t know if I had even cracked the AHL yet,” he said (for the record, he had). “Experience plays a part. I’ve seen a lot of situations.”
But he has never seen a Game 7 that could result in a championship title. At a high level, it’s not all that common and the Stars are aware of that.
“We were saying in the room, you don’t often get a chance to win in this league,” McKenzie said. “You look at a guy like Mike and (veteran left winger) Greg Rallo, who spent countless years in this league and never got the chance to win, so we’re going to be playing for those guys on Thursday for sure.”
For McKenna, the run with Syracuse gave him some perspective that he has carried over to Texas’ title effort.
“No matter how big the stage feels, the stage is the same size,” he said. “It’s the same ice surface, the same crease; it hasn’t changed. You learn to drown that out and enjoy it. These are special games. Getting to this point in the season is something that doesn’t happen often so you have to live in the moment.We’re playing the last hockey game in North America. That’s really exciting and I’m super-proud of the guys right now.”