Teemu Hartikainen was a welcome sight for the final weekend in the Barons' regular season. Photo copyright Kathleen Rodgers, All Rights Reserved
The Oklahoma City Barons closed out their regular season this past weekend in search of clinching the number one seed in the Western Conference. With one last game at home against the Houston Aeros, the Barons hit the road to finish off the season in Cedar Park, Texas against the Stars and then in San Antonio against the Rampage. Coming into the weekend tied with the Toronto Marlies with 95 points, the Barons had one game in hand to use to their advantage in clinching the number one seed.
The Houston Aeros were in the thick of a chase of their own as a huge jumble of teams fought for the final four playoff spots in the conference. Needing a win to help strengthen their chances of a berth, the Aeros started Matt Hackett in net as the Barons started the American Hockey League's Best Goaltender, Yann Danis. Ryan Keller was scratched, recovering from an upper body injury that he suffered in practice, putting the returning Teemu Hartikainen on the top line with Josh Green and Magnus Paajarvi. Also returning from Edmonton, Chris VandeVelde and Colten Teubert were back in the line-up.
It was an extremely physical game between the two teams, and tightly called at that. Numerous power play chances for both teams in the 1st resulted in no goals, and there was what has seemed to be an extremely rare fight as Triston Grant and Drew Bagnall dropped the gloves halfway through the 1st and fought to a draw. The scoreless tie was broken late in the period after a slick back pass from Hartikainen to Paajarvi and he shot it past Hackett to make it 1-0 Barons at the 17:19 mark. Outshot 12-8, the Barons held that lead after twenty minutes.
The Barons got into penalty trouble quick in the 2nd period, and put the Aeros on a 5-on-3 power play from penalties by Grant and Hunter Tremblay. It took the Aeros 17 seconds into the two-man advantage as Jon DiSalvatore received the puck right next to the left post and put it in unchecked to tie the game at 1-1 at 5:59. Things stayed heated as the period went on, and during an Oklahoma City power play, Nate Prosser dropped the gloves with Hartikainen after the Barons worked in close on Hackett as he tried to cover the puck. Good exchange that ended with Teemu getting the takedown on Prosser. At the 10:11 mark, Mark Arcobello picked up a Philippe Cornet rebound and put it in the net to give the Barons back the one-goal lead, 2-1. One more power play chance for each team went unconverted, and the 3rd period was quiet as the Barons took this one 2-1.
A loss by Toronto to Abbotsford set the Barons up to clinch the number seed on the road in Cedar Park against the Texas Stars. A single point would do the job as David LeNeveu was in net for the Barons against Jack Campbell for the Stars. The Barons opened the scoring for the second night in a row as Chris VandeVelde won a faceoff, Tanner House picked up the puck and dished it to Bryan Helmer. Helmer shot the puck through traffic and it found its way past Campbell to put the Barons up 1-0 at 13:21, and that held true as the 1st period ended with that score.
The 2nd period started and it didn't take long before Teemu Hartikainen picked up a Texas giveaway and put the puck on net, Magnus Paajarvi drove in and put away the rebound to make it 2-0 Barons just 75 seconds into the period. At 5:35, Mike Hedden was hooked up by Dylan Yeo on a breakaway and was awarded a penalty shot. On the shot, he drove in and shot it straight past LeNeveu to bring Texas back within one, 2-1. The Barons didn't let that last long though and at 16:45, Josh Green drove towards the net as he was hounded by a Stars defender, but he snuck it past Campbell and the Barons took back the two-goal lead, 3-1. Alex Plante and Martin Marincin picked up the assists on the goal, giving Marincin his first professional point in his sixth AHL game played. After two, the Barons were only twenty minutes away from clinching the number one seed in the Western Conference, leading 3-1.
It was the Stars turn to get a quick goal in the period as Dan Spang shot a puck from the point and into traffic. Mike Hedden got a stick on it on the way in and was credited with the goal, his second of the night at 1:41. Mark Arcobello put the Barons back up by two at 5:07 as he picked up a Dylan Yeo rebound and put the shot over Campbell's shoulder to make it 4-2. The last ten minutes of the period were riddled with roughing calls, and a fight between Antti Tyrvainen and Mike Hedden that was quickly broken up by the linesmen. Campbell was pulled with about two minutes left, but the Barons held off the extra attacker and Hunter Tremblay put away the empty net goal to give the Barons the 5-2 win, and the number one seed in the Western Conference.
With nothing much more to play for, the Barons headed to San Antonio to finish off the regular season. Yann Danis was in net for the Barons against Jacob Markstrom. It was a very subdued game as San Antonio looked to clinch a spot in the playoffs. At 7:03 in the 1st, Mark Cullen picked up a rebound and put it past Danis to give the Rampage the 1-0 lead. The Barons thought they may have tied the game on a Hartikainen shot that caused Markstrom's water bottle to bounce, but it was ruled that there was no goal. Three power play opportunities for both teams went unconverted in the game, and the Rampage held on to shutout the Barons 1-0.
After the game, it was time for some scoreboard watching as the Barons waited to see who they would be facing in the 1st round of the Calder Cup playoffs. A Milwaukee win over the Charlotte Checkers set up a scenario where the Houston Aeros needed a win against the Texas Stars to make it into the playoffs and eliminate Charlotte. Sure enough, Houston battled back from a 1-0 deficit to win and clinch the 8-seed, setting up a Houston-OKC series in round 1. The series will begin on Thursday in Houston, and game two on Friday. The series then shifts to OKC on Sunday for game three. Game four and five will take place next Tuesday and Wednesday if they're needed.