Oh the joy and the pain of a Western Conference AHL road trip. Where even the best teams' weaknesses are exposed, and goaltenders cower in fear of crowds swelling over 10,000. Where teams jockey for position, tempers flair, and losing/winning streaks are born. I'm a firm believer in the emotional, road-tested analogy in hockey that the really good teams, in any league, are birthed on the road.
This week the Barons continued their seven game road trip which has featured six West Division opponents, four of whom are a whisker ahead of the Barons in the standings. After last weekends three wins in three nights, the Barons had extended their winning streak to four games. The Barons would go toe-to-toe with Lake Erie, Milwaukee, Rockford, and Chicago to end the seven game trip before returning to Oklahoma City for a game on Wednesday evening. Given the closeness of the race for number one in the West, I was hoping that the Barons would at least snatch two of the games remaining on the road. To me this would have been a very successful road trip. However, the surging Barons one-upped my prediction.
Oklahoma City Barons at Lake Erie Monsters
On this Tuesday night in Cleveland, the Monsters outlasted the Barons as they scored twice in period two, and again in period three to ice the victory. Scoring the lone goal on the power play for the Barons was none other than Mr. Right-of-late, Bryan Helmer.
Both teams struggled to find their legs in period one, but eventually the ebb and flow of the game picked up, and both goaltenders made big stops early to keep their teams close. Jeff Deslauriers has found his stride. He is looking more and more confident in net, and the Barons coaching staff is giving him more and more opportunities to play. Since the beginning of the road trip, he and Martin Gerber have flipped flopped starts in net, and the tandem seems to be working like a well oiled machine. For the Monsters, goaltender John Grahame is the Erie version of Gerber; a veteran of both the NHL and AHL for years, who has been called upon to add some manliness to a young squad, and has done so admirably. With the shots even at nine through one period, it was time for one team to break through.
As period two began, the Barons quickly make a defensive mistake in their own end and the Monsters leading scorer, Mark Olver shuffled a rebounded shot over the left shoulder of Deslauriers. Two minutes later the Monsters are called for interference and high sticking only four seconds apart, as the Barons went 5 on 3. It didn't take long for the new fangled power play unit of Alexandre Giroux, Colin McDonald, Brad Moran, Teemu Hartikainen, and Bryan Helmer to score. Helmer, running the point, blasted a shot that rang of the post making it 1-1. With three minutes remaining in the period, Jake Taylor is called for slashing, and another Erie centerman, this time Ryan Stoa, punches home a long distance shot over the top of Deslauriers. At the end of two, it was Barons 1 and Erie 2.
The third period was a busy, as both teams raced the puck up and down the ice with a sense of urgency. However, it was yet another Erie centerman, Mike Carman, who netted the insurance goal as he drove his way horizontally in front of JDD and scooped the puck into the net.
The Barons lose to Lake Erie 3 to 1, but it also snapped their four game win streak.
Oklahoma City Barons at Milwaukee Admirals
Milan Kytnar has one of his best games of the year, nabbing two goals, and the helps win in the shootout as the Barons defeat the Milwaukee Admirals in an evenly matched bout.
Milwaukee is a very strong team. And much like their NHL counterpart in Nashville, they compete each and every night. Led by one of my favorite AHL players to watch in the West, Linus Klasen, this team rarely pulls back on the reins. The Barons have beaten the Admirals twice this year, and narrowly for a third time in early December. But don't let that fool you because Milwaukee can delve up the scoring in spurts which has led this team to owning one of the best records in the Western Conference.
Martin Gerber would get the start between the pipes for the Barons, and Mark Dekanich for the Admirals. Both would have strong games, but it was Gerber that would shine the brightest.
Period one commenced, and Oklahoma City found itself in a hole very early. Ads right-winger, Ryan Flynn, beat Richard Petiot to a puck jammed in the corner, and flipped it towards a streaking Milwaukee player. That player, Mark Van Guilder, scored only his third goal of the year making it 1-0 Milwaukee. Although the shot totals in the period favored the Barons (10-7), they were unable to get one in the net, and would enter period two down one goal.
The Barons would creep their way into the box score late in period two as Hartikainen clung to the puck behind the opposing net, skated towards the right wing, and placed a difficult centering pass right on Milan Kytnar's stick. The Barons score the only goal of period two to tie it up 1-1.
Period three might as well have been a different game, as both teams scored twice, and the pace quickened. Immediately following an expired Barons penalty, the Admirals Andreas Thuresson back-handed the puck around the scrum in front of Gerber's crease, and Milwaukee was back on top. Two minutes later, Alexandre Giroux cycled through the power play passing, and rocketed a slapshot around Dekanich, and the game was tied at 2 all. Milan Kytnar, snatching his second goal of the night, scored what appeared to be the game-winner for the Barons. However, with one minute left in the game Gregory Stewart is called for tripping, and the Admirals would capitalize with only forty seconds remaining in the game. As regulation ended, it was Barons 3, Admirals 3.
Overtime was a defensive struggle, but it wasn't without scoring chances for both squads. In the end, Dekanich kept the Admirals in the game blocking all four shots from Oklahoma City.
As the shootout loomed, it appeared that Coach Nelson would go with Hartikainen first. Followed by Milan Kytnar, Philippe Cornet, Alexandre Giroux, and finally Colin McDonald. Through five rounds, both Kytnar and McDonald scored compared to Milwaukee's one skater, Linus Klasen.
The Barons win in the shootout, after a gutsy performance by Gerber, and a strong outing by Milan Kytnar. Oklahoma City defeats Milwaukee 4-3.
Oklahoma City Barons at Rockford Ice Hogs
Colin McDonald finds his scoring muscle again, and puts the puck in twice en route to a Barons victory against the lowly Rockford Ice Hogs.
Snake-bitten by offensive woes, the Rockford Ice Hogs are having a rough year. Basement dwelling in the West Division isn't what you might expect. In a tough decision, finding ways to lose in close situations is not a friendly foe. However, the team soldiers on, and on the wings of eleven AHL rookies, this team played another close one with the Barons.
Staring Rockford goaltender, Hannu Toivonen, was met mid-first-period by two Barons goals. Gregory Stewart followed his own dumped puck into the corner, saucered it back to the point for Bryan Helmer, who rocketed the shot towards net. Stewart, now standing in front of the net, deflected the puck to put the Barons up 1-0. Three minutes later, Colin McDonald does a Liam Reddox impression, and steals the puck being mis-handled by the Rockford defense. He streaks down the right wing, and blasts a shot behind Toivonen to put the Barons up 2-0. Rockford showed some signs of life, after Milan Kytnar slashed an opponent, and the Ice Hogs' Jeff Taffe put a shot in past Barons goaltender Jeff Deslauriers. Period one ended, and the Barons were on top 2-1.
The second period was the most impressive period of the night for the Barons. Following an equalizing goal by Igor Makarov, Oklahoma City roared back with two goals. Colin McDonald, in transition, scored a beauty on the give and go from Brad Moran. Less than a minute later, Alexandre Giroux ran the puck down the right wing, stopped, and put it on net. The deflection arrived in the corner, and Brad Moran dropped it in front of Giroux who had now positioned himself directly in front of the net. Period two would come to a close with the Barons leading 4-2.
Rockford attempted a comeback, and scored early in the third, but Deslauriers kept the next seven shots out of the net. The Barons would defeat Rockford 4-3.
Of note in this game was the fight between Andrew Lord and Kyle Hagel. It was a spirited one as both got some really good shots in, as both appeared to have visual signs of fisticuffs (faces included). One of the better fights on the year by any Baron.
Oklahoma City Barons at Chicago Wolves
Martin Gerber stops 19 of 20, and two of the usual suspects, Giroux and Moran, both score power play goals to defeat the Chicago Wolves on their home ice, and wrap up a seven game road trip with only one loss.
The AHL scheduling gods have struck again, and through a random act of inconsistency scheduled the Chicago Wolves home game 45 minutes past the start of the Packers vs. Bears NFC Championship game. Now I realize that no one in Chicago, nor in the AHL front office could have predicted the Bears making it to the NFC Champs game, but to not adjust the schedule slightly seemed kind of silly. Even more silly? Almost 5,000 fans still made it to the game. The Chicago Wolves, farming for the Atlanta Thrashers, have been thrust into a whirlwhind of call-ups, and conditioning assignments throughout the year. Their inconsistencies can only be marked by the steady flow of new (and old) faces roaming the lineup. Despite being near the bottom of the West Division they are consistently less than four, five, or six points out of first place. Yes, this division is tight.
The first period was tame. Each team barely generated 5 or 6 shots on goal, and there were few penalties. Still, the pace was good, and the goaltenders seemed up to the challenges that might be presented. The first period ended 0-0.
Anthony Aiello, a name most Oilers fans probably aren't too familiar with, is a guy deep in the organization with the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL. The Boston College graduate has an an interesting entrance into the Barons lineup. At 6' 190lbs, he's not the model defenseman, but in only a few short games he's been effective. He had a breakout night against the Wolves as he logged two assists, and really created problems for the Wolves.
The second period, which featured Aiello's stellar night, was highlighted by a power play goal for the Barons which placed Aiello alongside Helmer, Giroux, Moran, and McDonald. Interesting to stick Aiello next to Helmer, but it worked as Colin McDonald scored goal number 23 on the season. Martin Gerber stopped the six shots Chicago put in front of him as the Barons wrapped up period two up 1-0.
Period three saw the Barons again on the power play, and again with Aiello, Helmer, Giroux, Moran, and McDonald. Again they scored, and the Barons appeared to be in full control.
A late Jared Ross goal from the Chicago Wolves was a little too late, as the Barons beat the Chicago Wolves 2-1.
News & Notables
This was an impressive seven game road trip for the Barons. Although it only lasted ten days, it contained seven games against six divisional opponents. Although not the longest road trip of the season, the Barons passed this go round with flying colors. To nab six victories out of seven is quite impressive. Another impressive stat was that they outscored their opponents 24 to 13. Gerber snatched yet another shutout as well. The Barons will return home for five straight games, but yet again, are forced to play division rivals. Let's hope the scoring continues, and the goaltending tandem stays strong.
Right now, the Barons are sitting in a three-way tie for second place with the Milwaukee Admirals and Houston Aeros. The Barons have two games in hand over Houston, but Milwaukee has two games in hand over Oklahoma City. If the playoffs were to begin today, the Barons would make the cut by residing in the top four of the West Division. We'll keep an eye on this as time goes on. Keep in mind, the Peoria Rivermen at the top, and the Chicago Wolves in seventh, are only separated by four standing points. There's lots of wiggle room in there, and wins suddenly feel more important than ever.
Shawn Belle continues to be bothered by an upper-body injury and was only able to make one start during the road trip. On the plus side, he has been doing some color commentary with Jim Byers, the OKC play-by-play guy, and it's quite the entertaining gab fest. He's pointing out potential slew foots, giving fight tips, and mentioning quality ice girls. This kid has a future...in broadcasting!
Colin McDonald and Alexandre Giroux are second and third in goals scored in the American Hockey League. Another interesting stat for the two forwards is PPG's. Giroux has eleven, McDonals has nine which is good for third and fifth place in the league. Hartikainen is in fifth place in rookie scoring with thirty points, and could easily take the top spot over the next couple of weeks at the pace he is currently riding. Martin Gerber has cracked the top twenty statistically for goaltenders in the league. He has three shutouts, his goals against has dropped to 2.53, and his save percentage is at .906. He currently sits at 16-10-2, and looks to better that down the stretch.
I'm going to speculate on some interesting AHL All-Star thoughts. Alexandre Giroux and Linus Omark are the two Barons placed on this year's All-Star team. This last week, two forwards from the league were added to the AHL All-Star roster as a result of players being unable to attend due to their call ups to their NHL counterparts. I'm going to assume that Omark isn't going to head to the AHL All-Star festivities, so who replaces him? Do they replace him? Does Colin McDonald get consideration if there is a replacement? All speculation, but certainly would be nice to see another Barons on that All-Star roster.
Chicago Wolves at Oklahoma City Barons
Texas Stars at Oklahoma City Barons
Chicago Wolves at Oklahoma City Barons
Peoria Rivermen at Oklahoma City Barons
Peoria Rivermen at Oklahoma City Barons