It was a quiet week on the farm in Oklahoma City. With only one game on the schedule last week, the preparation for the trip northward to Abbotsford had begun. If you missed last week's Barons Blizzard report, you'll note that Martin Gerber and the Barons defeated the San Antonio Rampage 2 to 0. It was a decent last hoorah as the Barons would have the next week and a half to prepare for the Abbotsford Heat match up on the 18th and 19th. I'll be quite honest, this team needs the rest. They've been busy and battered for some time, and an extended period of restfulness might help a few ailing bodies - namely Shawn Belle and Johan Motin. However, a long layoff sounds like a recipe for disaster as the Barons play the first edition of the "Baby Battle of Alberta" in a hostile environment in Abbotsford. The presence of a smattering of Oilers fans might help, but it most certainly will be the beginning of a drive to grab a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
With the play subsiding for eight games, I thought I'd take the time to highlight some important tidbits of information from a Barons perspective. I'll touch briefly on the prep needed for the Abbotsford game, the go-to goaltender situation, what this team needs to accomplish to make the playoffs, and take a gander at the remaining schedule for the Barons.
Alright in Abbotsford
Oh, Abbotsford; the lonely cousin to neighboring Vancouver. Home to Chad Kroeger, Evangeline Lily, and our very own Baron, Brad Moran. The Abbotsford Heat (Calgary Flames) currently sit in third place in the North Division of the Western Conference at 27-22-2-5 through 56 games played (61 pts). Backstopped by one of the top goaltenders in the league, Swan Hills native Leland Irving, this team is akin to the Barons in that they are a hot and cold bunch. Even with Irving's win total leading the AHL at 24, and his shutout total at 5, this team is prone to scoring funks. However, they have a fairly even roster with fifteen players in double digit points in just over 50 games. Included in that bunch is leading scorer Matt Keith. Keith, originally from Edmonton, is a centerman who's not afraid to put the puck on the net. Sitting at 17 goals and 12 assists, when he's on, he's on. Two other names to keep tabs on are T.J. Brodie and Greg Nemisz who are both in their rookie seasons and playing very well on defense and at right wing. There is also some great defensive pedigree on this team. Keith Seabrook, brother of Chicago Blackhawks Brent Seabrook, is playing very well of late.
In the end, to defeat the Abbotsford Heat you have to defeat Leland Irving. If the Barons can shoot a few arrows in his armor, they have a shot. And not only will they have to beat Irving, but they'll have to beat him early. When the game goes deep into the shootout, Irving is phenomenal (9-2 shootout record). Likewise, the Barons need to be prepared to put the puck on the net, and crash in for the rebounds because very little will get past this strong net-minder.
This will be the first time the two teams have met, and strangely will play a total of four times this month (wacky AHL schedulers). And although the Barons have greater success against North opponents as opposed to South, Abbotsford is pushing their way towards the playoffs as well. It should make for a great set of back-to-back games, but it also feels like escaping with two "W's" would be a great momentum boost for this young OKC team.
Gerber is Good to Go
In my humble Swiss-people-loving opinion, Martin Gerber is the quiet heart and soul of this team. He not only exemplifies what a veteran should be, but he displays it for his teammates. He's not had the greatest AHL defensive play in front of him, yet night in and night out he gives his team the opportunity to win. As March and April approach quickly, he's going to have to be the go-to guy.
For some time now, Jeff Deslauriers and Gerber have been flip-flopping games. Albeit, Deslauriers started a few consecutive games while Gerber was down with the flu, but other than that it's been back and forth. In the big games, Gerber is the guy I want in the net. He makes very few mistakes, and positions himself well in front of the net. He takes a beating from offensive players in his crease, and hardly ever seems rattled. I love what he does for this team, and I love how this team plays with him behind them.
His GAA is at a respectable 2.45. His save percentage is a steady .919. When perusing the AHL stat sheets, he's almost always in the top 12 in all goal-tending stat categories. But the key to his game is consistency. I like to think that Gerber will gobble the minutes for Coach Nelson in the remaining 26 games, especially with 16 of those games on the road.
Here's the Plan
Let's surmise, just for the day, that you're the coach of the Barons. What do you tell your players as you make a stab at playoff contention? What direction do you point your team? Offensively? Defensively? We all like to play the "what if" with our perspective teams so I'll give it a try.
Useless/Stupid penalties...Goodbye - Over the last ten games here is the penalty totals per period. 1) 53 mins 2) 46 mins 3) 22 mins. As you can see, the trend is to take penalties early and often. It's no wonder that they have a tendency to lag offensively in the first period; guys are in the penalty box. Play smart, disciplined hockey out of the gate, and you might not have to dig yourself out of a hole.
Giroux-Moran-McDonald. Yes! Hartikainen-Kytnar-Cornet. Yes! Yes! - The heavy hitters on the power play unit have been MGM all year long. Typically some incarnation of a Teemu Hartikainen line rolls the second half of the power play. I'd like to see the opposite for a change. Heck, I'd even like to see the kiddos up on the tier one line, grinding it out with opponents 3rd and 4th lines. Why? Because the Hartikainen-Kytnar-Cornet line thrives on momentum. They crave that early attack, and having their opponents on their heels. Let me quickly say this...THIS WON'T HAPPEN. Go with what works is the mantra, and over the season the "oldies" have gotten it done. However, I still think the youngsters could really upend a lot of opponents early with quick, strong, and dynamic play.
Score on the PP
Driving every coach insane, at every level, and in every league is the question of how to score on the power play. The penalty kill appears to be just fine, at a league leading 89.8, but the power play is mid-pack in the AHL at 18.7. Truthfully, mid-pack isn't bad, but it's not great. The Barons lead the AHL in power play attempts at 278 thus far, so they've had their opportunities. I'll re-iterate what is stated above; the kid line should be moved to power play unit number one. You could also consider swapping defensive pairings on the power play as well. With Jeff Petry headed back to the Barons, he might be a nice addition to the power play QB position.
This isn't a coaching "what if", but more an organizational request. It's time for the Cox Center to be full or even partly full. With only ten home games remaining, find a way to pack the house. Linus Omark mentioned it when he was here, and it gets brought up in many a post-game conversation, but the team needs to see a strong fan base, not just hear about it.
Here is a look at the remaining 26 game schedule for the Barons.
Remaining Games Played Per Team
(West Division teams highlighted - Barons head-to-head records through February 14th)
Houston Aeros - 5 (1-4)
Abbotsford Heat - 4 (Have not played yet)
San Antonio Rampage - 3 (3-4)
Texas Stars - 3 (1-6)
Grand Rapids - 3 (1-0)
Milwaukee Admirals - 2 (3-1)
Chicago Wolves - 2 (4-2)
Rockford Ice Hogs - 2 (3-1)
Manitoba Moose - 1 (2-1)
Peoria Rivermen - 1 (4-3)
You'll notice a trend. The head-to-head victories against North Division opponents favor the Barons. You'll notice that the Aeros and Stars absolutely own the Barons. And in a cruel twist of fate, they face each other eight times to finish the season. Throw in the unknown of an Abbotsford comparision, and one game difference against San Antonio, the Barons might be in trouble.
AHL Playoff Explained
For a great tutorial on how the AHL playoff system works, and what that might look like for the Barons, check out Scott's 'Barons and the Playoffs' piece.