The Aeros have been beaten and bloodied by the Oklahoma City Barons all season. Houston looks to change that in the postseason. Photo courtesy of Rob Ferguson. All rights reserved.
"All songs in this book are filed in alphabetical order. Put them back the same way and be sure you put them back. Signed, A Desperate Man"
- Woody Guthrie
The great Oklahoman, Woody Guthrie, knew how to seize the moment. He could be brow beaten, busted, and burned yet found ways to be cordially humorous. So when Woody signed an archived record of his works, he wanted to remind the world that now was the time, here was the place, because he was a desperate man.
As the regular season ends, the Oklahoma City Barons find themselves atop the heap of the Western Conference with the almighty number one seed gripped ever so firmly in their hand. The truth is that it wasn't always tightly gripped. There's no denying the troubles that the Oilers farm club had down the stretch. From the beginning of March through April 15th the team went 10-7-2-2, and just barely outpaced the surging Toronto Marlies for the number one overall seed in the postseason. It's mind-boggling to think that a team with so much firepower, defensive toughness, and stout goaltending could struggle so much down the stretch. But remember, this team road it's high horse all season, and winning had become second nature. And while other teams found it necessary to win, the Barons coasted. There was no desperation to their game.
But with the regular season in the rear view mirror, the Barons have quite a few things to prove. First, they'll look to attack the Aeros in a short five game first round. In the AHL off-season the growing mantra from the Board of Governors was to shorten the regular season, and shorten the earliest round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. But by moving from a seven game first round to only five, teams can hit the panic button quickly even after one loss. Regardless, Oklahoma City will need to be red hot offensively as the need to win becomes quickly prevalent.
Second, goaltending will need to be "as advertised". To not only have the best goaltender in the minors, but quite possibly the best backup as well, is a double-edged sword of trouble for an opposition; especially teams that struggle offensively. Yann Danis and David LeNeveu will lead the charge, and will have to find a way to be calm, cool, and consistent over the entire playoff arc. This is the heartbeat of the Todd Nelson system; it begins in net.
Third, the power play will need to be fixed and fixed quickly. The Barons own the 24th worst(best) PP in the league which is nothing to write home about. However, if it's going to start firing on all cylinders it will likely take place against the 24th ranked PK from the Houston Aeros. Coach Nelson has tinkered and tinkered and tinkered with very little traction. However, it seems that the linchpin for the man advantage begins with the point man. The defenseman playing that role needs to cycle the puck quickly and effectively.
Finally, the Barons will need to show that they can sell tickets. The team is really good which hasn't been enough to up the attendance much at all. Will a deep postseason run even make a difference? Perhaps. But $10 ticketing in the first round is a good start (for upper level seats).
Houston is nearly one year removed from losing in the Calder Cup Finals to the Ryan Keller led Binghamton Senators. They surprised a lot of people last season, yet barely squeezed their way into the playoffs a year later. Many of the struggles for Houston this season came gift wrapped via the parent club in Minnesota that was injury riddled through the NHL season. But the Wild aren't all to blame for the Aeros situation. The weight of success fell greatly on sophomore goaltender Matt Hackett when his #2, rookie Darcy Kuemper, suffered an upper body injury.
Although they finished 4th in the West, they scored a similar amount of goals as the OKC squad but gave up thirty more goals at the other end. And indeed this team struggled at even strength, but has steadily hovered near top ten when with an extra skater. That's in part thanks to three key Aeros players. Rookie right winger, Justin Fontaine is fresh from an NCAA Championship with Minnesota-Duluth. He's been dynamite offensively with 16 goals and 29 assists. He's also been very durable playing 73 games. The other two dangerous forwards are a tad more seasoned. Jeff Taffe has 18 goals and 35 assists, and Jon Disalvatore has 28 goals and 33 assists. Those are certainly nice numbers for top forwards in the AHL. They can be dangerous when they want to be, but at times give up way too much defensively.
The key for the Aeros will be to button things up. Play a tight, well rounded, but a defensively smart hockey game. They aren't going to force the Barons to do anything that the Barons don't want to do. While Oklahoma City hopefully attacks the net the Aeros will need to find ways to counter at the other end.
This season Oklahoma City has owned the Aeros, much as they did last season. They've gone 7-0-0-1 against them but with four of those games going into a SO. Simply put, these two play close, one goal games often. And in a short series the Barons will need to focus on scoring quickly because any type of wait-and-see approach might end in a flukey goal here or forward surge there. In addition, focus on beating them while at even strength where Aeros scoring can be clanky.
Below you'll find a well-rounded sampling of what others are saying about the Oklahoma City Barons versus Houston Aeros five game series. Keep in mind that in the best of five scenario, the first two games will be played in Houston (by virtue of the Barons choosing this) with the final three in Oklahoma City. I understand the reasoning behind this move, and it's no doubt strategic in nature. The Barons road record (24-10-1-3) is better than its home record (21-12-3). And given the two-year series these two have skated, the Barons will be heavily favored in both home and away games.
"Everybody knows each other," Torchetti said. "You're not really going to hide much."
It's going to be simple for the Aeros. They can probably beat the Barons, season record against them aside, but to do so, the Aeros will have to excel defensively and the offense will need to score some goals early so as to take off some of the pressure that goalie Matt Hackett's been under lately. Then again, Hackett was under intense pressure throughout last season's playoff run, and he excelled in the spotlight.
"The boys are excited," Hackett said. "Tonight was a huge character win. We're going to feed off that and go for a nice long run in the playoffs."
Oak City has lots of swanky fire-power and one of the best goalies in the league in Yann Danis. While much of the season, the Aeros have been a bit suspect defensively, their problem in this series is simply going to be getting pucks in the net.
In the Aeros' favor, Matt Hackett is playing well and, with Nate Prosser back, the d-corps is stronger and smarter than it has been. Scandella is out for another couple of weeks and Steve Kampfer has yet to play a game since being sent down either.
Also, the Aeros tied the AHL record for shootout losses this season, so it goes without saying that YAY NO MORE SHOOTOUTS EVER!
The bottom line for the Aeros is that they're going to have to get nearly flawless goaltending, play smart defense, block a ton of shots, and execute with desperation and focus on offense. Basically, bring your A-game and you have a chance. Don't, and the Barons will eat you for dinner.
"I probably have three powerplay units up front with the first three lines, then arguably the fourth line could be a shutdown line. We're in a pretty good situation," said Nelson. "Hopefully the combinations will work. I had that (Paajarvi-Green-Hartikainen) line together just before Harty was called up, and they were playing really well.
"The line of Tremblay, Arcobello and Pitlick has been dynamite. They may not be scoring a lot of goals, but they control the play every time they are out there. Then with the other line, with Lander, we have a good two-way centreman and offensive capability in Cornet and Keller."
Tim Leone at the Patriot News has picked OKC to defeat the Houston Aeros in three games straight. But he also has them in the Calder Cup Finals facing the Bridgeport Sound Tigers which features Edmond, OK native Matt Donovan. Talk about a good story:
The Calder Cup has developed a habit of following Bryan Helmer.
The venerable defenseman won his first as a member of the Albany River Rats in 1994-95 and he captained the Hershey Bears to two more in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Don't be surprised if Helmer hoists it again as captain of the Oklahoma City Barons in 2011-12.
The Western Conference's regular-season champion has two strong Cup playoff ingredients in Helmer's leadership and the goaltending of Yann Danis. Thus, I am picking the Barons to win the AHL title.
"It's a big win for us," said head coach John Torchetti. "It was just a lot of fun watching our guys, watching them celebrate. What we went through this year, not to make the playoffs, being so close ... We probably could have fell down and said, ‘Hey, it's okay, we can make it for another time,' but that just showed you everything right there."
Check back later today for the Copper and Blue game day thread. Join us as we cheer the Barons as they face the Aeros in Houston.