In the throes of a five game road trip that began in Toronto, the Oklahoma City Barons would have called it a success if they won 50% of those games. As it turned out, Alexandre Giroux finally found ways to score, Martin Gerber steadied himself in net, the defensive intensity was ratcheted up a notch or two, and the Barons found themselves looking like a darn good hockey team.
On the schedule this week there were three games, two of which were against West Division opponents. It's awfully early to talk about points and standings, but no one can deny the importance of some early W's especially against divisional opponents. The tough Chicago Wolves, the feisty Grand Rapids Griffins, and the West-leading Peoria Rivermen would make for a tough succession of games.
A Howl of a Win
Nearly one month ago, Thrashers' goaltender Ondrej Pavelec collapsed on opening night of the NHL season. Before heading back to Atlanta, Pavelec first had to finish a conditioning assignment with the Chicago Wolves, and as the starting netminder against the Barons he'd find himself tested early and often. The Wolves had struggled at home while the Barons had found new life on the road after a big win in Hamilton on Sunday. All eyes were on Alexandre Giroux as he attempted to gain some of the goalscoring magic we'd seen over the last two years in Hershey. Giroux would indeed score first against Pavelec on a nifty move to make it 1-0 midway through the first period. Nearly three minutes later while on the powerplay, Giroux was gifted a 20-foot pass from Shawn Belle that hit him directly on the stick and eventually sailed past Pavelec stick side bringing the score to 2-0. Colin McDonald scored the third goal in the second period after a skating frenzy by Linus Omark and a quick pass from Alexandre Giroux. Ironically, all three Baron goals were scored within the first ten shots on the Wolves goaltender. Lethbridge, Alberta native Spencer Machacek gave the Wolves some life as the third period began, but it was too little too late for Chicago as they would eventually pull Pavelec in the dying minutes only to see Liam Reddox score the empty netter to win the game 4-1. Martin Gerber stopped 34 shots on the evening, and continues to be surprisingly strong away from home.
Those Rough Rapids
The Detroit Red Wings had high hopes for rookie Brent Raedeke this season. An undrafted free agent signed in 2008, the 20-year-old Raedeke is coming off an appearance in the Western Hockey League Memorial Cup last season. I was anxious to see this kid play. However, on Friday night, as the Barons headed to Grand Rapids to take on the Griffins, Raedeke wasn't in the spotlight. Rather, we saw a long-time member of the Red Wings organization play like a guy that belongs in the NHL. Ilari Filppula, the OLDER brother of Red Wings forward Valtteri Filppula, gave Oklahoma CIty all they could handle in a vigorous matchup. In the first five minutes of the game, Brad Moran scored an opening power play goal off assists from Petry and Giroux. Almost one minute later, Liam Reddox would connect after a sweet pass from Linus Omark. But the excitement was quickly thwarted when the Griffins scored two goals to round out the first period, including one from Griffins veteran Jan Mursak. For the remainder of the game, the scoring would go back in forth. When the third period came to a halt, the score was tied 4-4 and the Barons would have a chance at their first shootout of the season. Alexnadre Grious, Linus Omark, Teemu Hartikainen, Liam Reddox, and Brad Moran took the shots for Oklahoma City eventually winning the shootout 3-2. Overall, the Barons continued to play strong defensively while capitalizing on scoring chances and turnovers.
Across the River
Next up was a five-hour trip to Peoria to take on the St. Louis Blues affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, who've been tops in the West Division to start the season. The scouting report for the Rivermen always seems to be heavy on words like "bruisers", "crunching", and "rough and tumble"; they most certainly are as advertised. Peoria defenseman, Nathan Oystrick, had been sent to the St. Louis Blues while Mark Cundari recovers from the dreaded upper body injury, and his absence would certainly be a key to the Barons dominating performance. Peoria scored first on the powerplay after a silly hooking penalty from Shawn Belle, but that was all that the Rivermen could muster as the Barons would score the next three goals including the game winner by Linus Omark. A visibly frustrated Peoria team fell apart towards the end of the game as veteran Graham Mink cross-checked Richard Petiot in the face after the whistle. He was given a five minute cross-checking penalty and a game misconduct resulting in his ejection. Following the game, the Rivermen waited nearly an hour to participate in a charity auction following the game as the team stayed behind locked doors. Strangely, this was one of the first games the Oklahoma City Barons won after outshooting their opponent, in this case 23-18. They also won despite going 0-5 on the powerplay.
Needless to say, it was quite an impressive road trip (you know things are going well when Matt Marquardt makes an appearance on the score-sheet). Hanging on to a four game win streak that began with a semi-ugly appearance in Hamilton, Oklahoma City has found itself hovering around first place in the fifteen team Western Conference of the AHL. Todd Nelson has the team sharp in almost all regards. Defensively, they skate strong and disciplined. Offensively, they make sharp passes and find goaltenders' weak spots.
As the Barons arrive home for the longest home-stand of the season beginning November 5th and stretching all the way to November 23rd, it's time for them to bring that winning chemistry home.
I'd be fibbing if I said I wasn't surprised by this win streak. Given their opponents and their horrid travel schedule, I would've been happy with that 50% win total. I find myself asking, "What is the key to this team's winning ways?" quite often. Truthfully, they win in different ways each night, but the key to their winning as of late has been stellar defense. Martin Gerber "manned-up" in all aspects of his game. The defensive coaching of Todd Nelson has been stellar as he manages a beast of a player in Shawn Belle, and the smart puck play of Richard Petiot and Jeff Petry. Jake Taylor, recovering from an upper body injury, plans to return to the lineup November 5th, which should beef up that D even more.
That leads me to me final thought: which Barons' player gets called to the Oilers first? Will it be Liam Reddox for more shots on goal? Will it be Shawn Belle and his strong skates? Or maybe it's Richard Petiot to kill some penalties. There is bound to be some discussion in Edmonton about translating the success of the Barons up the pipe to the Oilers. Given the success of this road trip in particular a call-up might come sooner than later.