Saturday evening the Oklahoma City Barons took to the ice as nearly 10,000 fans welcomed the return of professional hockey to the Cox Center. A weekend that was filled with wild optimism for a team within an organization that had dedicated itself to youthful re-invigoration throughout the off season. While fans of all ages squeezed their way into the arena, free t-shirt in hand, you could certainly feel the excitement growing as the first puck drop drew near. There were certainly some highs, and most definitely some lows, but it was hard not to enjoy the overall experience.
Saturday's home opener against the Houston Aeros, who finished last in the Western Division a season ago, was a tough one to watch. The team struggled to find any momentum and only mustered one goal in a 6-1 defeat. The Chicago Wolves, last seasons Western Division champs, made their way to town for another game less than 24 hours after the first. The outcome of game two was seemingly better than the first, but still ended in a 2-1 defeat. With only one full day of practice with a complete roster, it comes as no surprise that the Barons struggled greatly. Teemu Hartikainen summed up the weekend best in a post game interview following the Houston loss, "Just having one practice together, it's hard to come together. The chemistry will come. Guys are going to get more comfortable with each other, and the coaches are going to find the right combinations." After the jump some 'UP' & 'DOWN' moments from Barons opening weekend.
Teemu Forever (UP)
Teemu Hartikainen is a name that Oilers fans have come to enjoy. The Finn is very close to becoming a full fledged Oiler, but is willing to put in some work in the A. He scored midway through the second period of game one against a tough net-minder Matt Hackett, and then again in game two in period one going high over the shoulder of Wolves goaltender Edward Pasquale. I thought for a brief moment that Hartikainen might make my 'DOWN' list as he took a bad penalty in game one and found himself getting crushed by a Houston Aeros defender while admiring a pass he made. Nonetheless, he scored the only two goals which prevented the Barons from laying two goose eggs on opening weekend. Rabid and casual fans alike needed something to cheer about, and fortunately Hartikainen gave a glimmer of hope.
Vande Whatey? (DOWN)
Chris Vande Velde played two horribly sluggish games that bothered even this CVV fan. He showed much promise in the Oilers preseason games and I even found myself saying, "He's going to make an NHL team". Then I was brought down to earth when he finished -3 for the weekend. Sure, the guy has had a few days with this team and coaching staff, but to be out-skated, and out-manned two nights in a row is painfully difficult to swallow. He'll bounce back there's no doubt. However, I am curious to know who purchased his jersey post-game for $350?
Shawn Ring Your Belle (UP)
The big, strong, rough, and tumble Shawn Belle played increasingly physical on the Barons blue line. Frankly, I was surprised at his physical play. He definitely lacks the skating ability, but he makes up for it in strength. He finished the weekend at +2, 5 PIM, and 4 SOG. His most electric moment came when he scrapped with Jarod Palmer of the Houston Aeros. Kid has a reach! A lively scrap indeed, but it came as fans were exciting the building which caused many to pause and re-think their early exit. If Belle can continue the physical play in open ice, managing the puck well, and protect his goaltender, he certainly will have a strong season.
Linus, But More Lucy (DOWN)
"Guy just skates around", "Is this ice skating or hockey?", "Who does this kid think he is?". These are just a few of the quotes resounding from section 315 as we watched Linus Omark do his thing. In my opinion, Linus Omark tried too much with very little pay off. He shines in the open ice breakaway moment, and stumbles when he tries to force his way through traffic. He certainly had some fantastic puck play moments where defenders were caught off guard, but he was unable to capitalize on the moment. Todd Nelson has the task of calming this guy down both emotionally and physically. Once again, another late arrival to the Barons that struggled with cohesion. For now Oklahomans can refer to him as the "Swedish Vimeo Sensation" until he earns back the "Swedish YouTube Sensation" nickname.
Alexandre Giroux is going to be a great Baron. Having heard of his greatness from the good folks in Hershey, I fully anticipated his goal scoring frenzy to continue. That didn't happen this weekend, but believe me when I say this...he is going to score some goals. He finds shootable lanes perfectly. knows where to stand in front of the net, and has a quicker shot than I remember. He had 16 minutes in the penalty box over the weekend and yes that is unforgivable, but we saw a glimpse of life with "Roo" the goal scoring veteran.
The Gerber Gutter (DOWN)
The well-seasoned Swiss goaltender, Martin Gerber, made it to Oklahoma City on Thursday evening. Practiced one day, and got the nod for starting goaltending duties. Visibly frustrated, Gerber lost focus early in the Houston Aeros loss. He faced 26 shots of which he stopped 20. In the Chicago Wolves matchup he let in two goals within a nine minute span to open period number two. My problem with Gerber throughout the years has been his net positioning. He has a tendency to play dangerously deep in his net, which proved fatal for shot after shot that reached him shoulder high. Sunday's game against Chicago was much better positionally, but his reaction time still seemed slightly off. If there is anyone on a 20+ ice hockey roster that needs the comfort of a team gelling it's the goaltender. Gerber appears to be the guy going forward, and I anticipate a great season from this vet. If he can keep his cool, focus on the game, and get some momentum from his teammates he'll be fine.
Barons PP (DOWN)
To say that the Barons struggled on the power play over the weekend would be an understatement. I like the 0/15 streak to be referred to as horrendous. Saturday night they did their best by outshooting the Aeros 31 to 26 while only reaching the back of the net once. And 0/8 power play rounded out an abysmal offensive outing. Sunday night's Wolves game had a similar outcome as they had 29 shots on net and an 0/7 power play. Strong visiting goaltenders proved too much for the Barons who saw their share of good to great chances.
It's Crowded In Here...Or Not (UP & then DOWN)
I've never had to wait in a line of any length to enter the Cox Convention Center; until Saturday night. It was great to see a packed house for a event other than a John Mayer concert at the Cox Center. It was a crowd totaling 9,818 for opening night, but it was also an early crowd. Doors opened one hour prior to the puck drop and people were lined up just to get in. There were also long lines of people purchasing tickets on the spot for the game. I praise the PR team for the Barons for spreading the word, but mostly I praise fans for showing up. But as quickly as I gave the thumbs up for opening night, I was bludgeoned by the tiny crowd on Sunday afternoon. From almost 10,000 to nearly 3,000 we go. Yes, this is a terrible mark considering the previous nights game attendance, but keep in mind the start time of Sunday, 3:05pm. That's a brutal time-slot for any sporting event. Look for a more consistent total of 7,000 as the weeks progress. While the team gets better, so will the consistent ticket sales.
Ice Girls, Mascots, Smoking Derricks (DOWN)
The players on the ice weren't the only ones with a little rust, even the off-ice stuff needs a united front. From the ice girls to the
flaming smoking oil derricks, to Derrick the Mountain Lions feeble attempt at skating, it was a rough night for promotional entertainment. They too need some work and might consider a few more preseason rehearsals in the future. Have no fear! I expect the ice girls to make a full and timely recovery, and old Derrick the Mountain Lion has a week to get lighter on his skates.
Charge It (UP)
Off season progress on the Cox Center has improved the old barn in many ways. Of the new improvements the one that I enjoy the most is the new team store. It's large, well stocked, and diverse. I give the Barons front office a hearty "attaboy" for this one. They promised an opening night store that was full of new product and they certainly came through. Pucks, banners, hats, tees, sweatshirts, totes, and more all came in various colors and sizes and there appeared to be quite a market for Barons gear.
I'd be lying if I said that the opening night 6-1 loss wasn't a bummer. I'd also be lying if I said I liked being 0-2 to start the season. Nonetheless, the season is here. Ripe are the fields in the AHL as even the Sprinfield Falcons mustered a win over the weekend. It is difficult to gauge progress over two games, but in reality the team on Sunday seemed more poised and focused than the team the night before. Many will roll their eyes at the thought of a down weekend for the Barons and say, "I thought this was supposed to be a better brand of hockey". Indeed the Barons were beat on both occasions this weekend, but they certainly weren't a worse brand of hockey. Just a brand of hockey that hasn't been together very long.