On Thursday 6:30/7:30pm the Oklahoma City Barons will darken the doors of the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario to face the Bulldogs in the first round of the American Hockey League playoffs. Hamilton, an unfamiliar foe for the most part, is the lofty owner of the top spot in the North. As they bullied their way through the final nine games of the season, they only hiccuped once along the way. Their number one seeding in their division was earned, and well deserved for a well-balanced troupe.
Hamilton and Edmonton have some history, having spent the late 90's and early 00's being affiliated with the Oilers organization. Time moves on, the Montreal Canadians seized the sole affiliation opportunity from the Oilers, and began a great relationship in 2002. In that time they've had one regular season title, three division championships, two conference championships, and a Calder Cup. But look no further than the offspring that this organization has birthed to prove its recent success; Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Maxim Lapierre, Jaroslav Halak, and Mikhail Grabovski just to name a few.
The Barons and Bulldogs met twice during the regular season, and on one occasion so did the rest of North America. The NHL Network televised game was well covered here at Copper & Blue (Game Thread | Game Recap | PK Lesson), and deservingly so as it was the first time Oilers fans were able to see the Barons play as one instead of bits and pieces in training camp. Oklahoma City would win the first round against Hamilton when Alexandre Giroux slung in the game winner in overtime on October 24th.
Fast forward nearly two months later, and the Barons would welcome the Bulldogs to Oklahoma for a pre-Christmas game that was completely one-sided. Hamilton goaltender, Curtis Sanford, would shutout the Barons as David Desharnais would have a goal and an assist. Martin Gerber would only face 23 shots, but gave up three of those. The Bulldogs won round two soundly in Oklahoma City with a 3-0 victory.
Since the two have met, the teams have surged and slumped at different times. Although the Bulldogs are tops in the North, they only have six more standings points than the Barons who are 5th in the West. This speaks both to the toughness of the Western Division, but also to the forgotten mediocre nature of the North Division.
Far & Away
Headed into the playoffs, Hamilton is riding a three game win streak. They are as good at home (22-15-1-2) as they are on the road (22-12-1-6) thus making them a tough competitor wherever they might play. By comparison the Barons find rhytm on the road (22-13-0-5) and are just over .500 at the Cox Center (18-16-2-4). Finding ways to win at home will be key for the Barons. A large crowd, more offensive scoring options, and good goaltending all might weigh in on the matter.
When comparing the special teams numbers for both teams, they're surpassingly similar. Both teams have virtually identical power play percentages at 18.7% and their penalty kills are hovering at 83%. Remarkable that neither leads in this particular statistical category. The next logical "tie-breaker" in this category would then be how many penalties does each team commit. The Barons have a two minute edge in PIM's at 17 vs. 15 on average per game. Lately those numbers have been declining, yet come playoff time making smart, in-game decisions will be key.
Alex Giroux, Brad Moran, Colin McDonald, and Teemu Hartikainen are your top four point getters during the regular season and are expecting to add to that total in the playoffs. However, Mark Arcobello has surged late in the season, and the number of scoring defensemen has been on the rise. Look for Linus Omark to add a dimension of flair and tenacity that the Barons have missed down the stretch.
Nigel Dawes, Aaron Palushaj, David Desharnais, and James T. Wyman complete the top scorers for the Bulldogs. With the Montreal Canadiens playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Bulldogs run the risk of being depleted. As I type this, Desharnais, along with Max Pacioretty are with the big club in Montreal. Injuries, and other emergency call ups do occur in the playoffs so the pressure might intensify as the series rolls on. Nigel Dawes, a mid-season acquisition along with Brent Sopel, was huge at an AHL level, but also the NHL levels as well. Dawes gave Colin McDonald a run for his money in the goal scoring race which was settled by McDonald on the last day of play. The magic number ended up being 42.
Drew MacIntyre, the other play dealt from the Chicago Wolves/Atlanta Thrashers organization this season, is a well-seasoned netminder for Hamilton. With Chicago he played 20 games and was an admirable 12-5-1-0. Since coming over to the Bulldogs mid-season, he's continued that trend at 12-6-2-1 in 21 games played. He's actually increased his SV percentage by a few decimal points, and is now firmly at .938. The 2001 4th rounder has had a good American League career, but remains one of those that hasn't been able to cross-over to the NHL
Another seasoned goaltender, and one that NHL followers will recognize for the Bulldogs is Curtis Sanford. Sanford has played the two most recent seasons with the Hamilton club, but had two sub-par seasons with the St. Louis Blues from 05-07. He also snuck in nearly 40 games with the Canucks from 07-09. He's had very few really successful seasons, but that has changed this season and last. Through 40 games he's 23-13-2-5 with a SV% of .930. He's not huge, but he brings the experience that a team needs come playoff time.
Short and sweet. Jeff Deslauriers has been shining bright, but with Gerber now healthy the goaltending tandem seems to be back to its normal rotation. Deslauriers will most likely ride his strong play late in the season, and grab the starting role. If he falters early and often, Coach Todd Nelson will pull him quick. Gerber hadn't started in nearly a month before letting in 7 goals last night as they were defeated by the Houston Aeros.
But realize that Gerber is fine. Neck appears to be all okay, and the team is ready to move forwards.
Hamilton relies heavily on their goaltenders to win the games down the stretch, but they have some defensive girth. Rookie Brendon Nash and leading defensive scorer, Kyle Klubertanz lead a very offensively minded pack of defenders. They are quick, aggressive, and tenacious. However, the defensive forwards, namely Andrew Conboy and Jimmy Bonneau are heavy hitters that are a force to be reckoned with.
The Barons will most likely own the size and weight advantage overall, but they suddenly have become even more dynamic. The infusion of Colten Teubert and Kevin Montgomery into the lineup will really have the Barons coaching staff in a pickled when it comes to choosing the right pairings. Look for Jeff Petry to be the difference maker.
In The End
After the preview smoke has cleared and the series has begun, what can we expect? Look for the built-in comparison of Nigel Dawes and Colin McDonald to emerge as a story. They've battled for the goal scoring award all year (McDonald a little more than Dawes), and they'll duke it out on the same ice. But it's the deep pairings that feature Kytnar, Ondrus, etc. that will make the difference. Will they be able to shut down this scoring line, and will the defensemen facing the BIGS come through?
However, the squeaky hinge will be the goaltenders. The Bulldogs certainly have the edge, but the Barons tandem has had proven success. Deslauriers is riding high, and Gerber is the veteran who's "been there and done that" before. Yet the Bulldogs, who were barely out of playoff contention two and a half weeks ago, have put up dangerously impressive numbers, mainly in net.
The Bulldogs will begin the series on Thursday and play again Saturday before heading home for a Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday series the following week. Selling a mid-week game, albeit playoff variety, will be tough in OKC. However, fans have surprised me of late, and look for many new fans to jump on the bandwagon.
April 14 OKC @ Hamilton Bulldogs 6:30 p.m.
April 16 OKC @ Hamilton Bulldogs 3 p.m.
April 19 Hamilton Bulldogs @ OKC 7:05 p.m.
April 20 Hamilton Bulldogs @ OKC 7:05 p.m.
April 22 Hamilton Bulldogs @ OKC 7:05 p.m.*
April 24 OKC @ Hamilton Bulldogs 3 p.m.*
April 25 OKC @ Hamilton Bulldogs 6:30 p.m.*
all times listed as Central Time
You, the faithful reader of Copper & Blue, it's your time to choose the team. In the comments below, insert your offensive and defensive lines. Let's all assume that Deslauriers gets the start. But where do the chips fall from there. With the Clear Day Roster, and normal roster listed below, choose your lines!
Tanner House, Alexandre Giroux, Gregory Stewart, Andrew Lord, Colin McDonald, Milan Kytnar, Brad Moran, Ryan O`Marra, Linus Omark, Zack Stortini, Ben Ondrus, Mark Arcobello, Teemu Hartikainen, Hunter Tremblay,
Jeff Deslauriers, Martin Gerber