When the American League schedule was released for the 10-11 season I shook my head, and circled this week on the calendar. For one, the Barons would play five road games, against four different teams, in only six days. This is unimaginable at any level of hockey, especially in the tier just below the NHL. Nevertheless, this was the card that was dealt to OKC, and they mustered the courage to play well when the schedule was stacked against them.
In those six days, the Barons would travel from Peoria to Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids to Rockford, and Rockford to Chicago. This sounds like a lonely pharmaceutical sales rep tour, but no, it's the Barons "push to the playoffs" calendar, and the only remedy was a winning fix.
With ten standings points up for grabs, the Barons would need to get at least half of those to stay within hugging distance of a playoff spot. At this point in the season scoring is key, and the Barons would take a hit midway through the week (on a private jet too!). How did the Barons fare? You'll be pleasantly surprised.
Oklahoma City Barons at Peoria Rivermen
The eighth and final meeting between the Barons and Rivermen took place on the eve of what Tom Renney hinted would be three more callups from Oklahoma City to the ailing parent club. Alexandre Giroux would play for the Barons in this one, but his imminent call back to the NHL felt inevitable.
Martin Gerber in a bit of a slump lately, has lost his last three starts. He'd need to come up big to give his team a chance at any resemblance of a playoff push.
Like a warm blanket on a cold day, Giroux and McDonald connected on an opening frame goal within the first 33 seconds of the game. It was built by a strong skate up ice by Giroux followed by a fantastic pass that McDonald blasted in past Peoria's Ben Bishop. The Barons were ahead, but needed to prove it wasn't a fluke.
Through the second they played strong, but both teams were unable to convert on the power play as shot totals crawled closer to even.
The team seemed more zealous tonight with callup news wafting through their minds. Vande Velde was quicker to the puck, O`Marra made smart passes, and Giroux crashed the net like he was 20 again.
Eight minutes into period three, the Barons finally cave as the defense gets beat, and Peoria's Dave Scratchard scores on the top line.
The game would remain tied through the end of period three, and neither team put it away in OT. Eventually Ben Bishop would win the shootout victory and Martin Gerber would suffer his fourth loss in a row.
Oklahoma City Barons at Grand Rapids Griffins
After a tough shootout loss the night before, the Barons would make their way to Grand Rapids the next day to combat the feistiness of a talented Griffins team. Following the game, three Barons would get the "go ahead" to board a private jet en route to joining the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL. Questions of who, why, and when would be sprinkled throughout the home broadcast for the Barons.
The game was back and forth through the first ten minutes of period one with both teams getting great opportunities. Andrew Lord would take exception to a hit on Ryan O`Marra and have a lively scrap with Griffins heavyweight Brandon Straub. The quick fight ignited more intensity for the Barons, and Brad Moran would get the power play goal in the nineteenth minute of period one after some incredible passing from Alexandre Giroux and Bryan Helmer. Period one ended with the Barons on top 1-0.
Halfway through period two, Griffins center Jamie Johnson drove the puck in deep behind starting goaltender Martin Gerber, and shuffled it quickly to Francis Pare who'd put the Griffins on the board. With two periods over, the score was now one all.
A scary moment for hockey fans came in the first couple of minutes of period three when Martin Gerber was bowled over by a crashing Griffins forward. He'd lay on the ice for several minutes while being tended to. In light of his neck injury over a year and half ago, this was a tense moment. He'd get up to his feet, be escorted to the locker room, and taken by stretcher out of the arena. We'd discover later that this was a precautionary move, and that he is simply experiencing some neck soreness. All is well with Gerber.
In skates Deslauriers in a crunch time scenario. He'd be incredibly strong to finish the last seventeen minutes of period three stopping all ten shots, and then two more in overtime.
Despite playing strong defense and having offensive scoring opportunities ended by Griffins goaltender Jordan Pearce, the Barons would lose in a SO for the second night in a row.
Oklahoma City Barons at Rockford Ice Hogs
Rockford, the only team in the West Division out of playoff contention, can be sneaky. The Barons certainly weren't looking past the Ice Hogs nor did they expect to take the night off. Instead the team ripped the Ice Hogs from start to finish.
With Chris VandeVelde, Ryan O`Marra, and Alexandre Giroux with the big club and Martin Gerber still caring for his stiff neck, Colin McDonald came alive.
Right off the first period puck drop the latest callup from Stockton, Jesse Gimblett, took exception to something said by Rockford's Kyle Hagel as the two tangled at center ice. Ironically, it was the Ice Hogs only powerful moment of the evening.
Alex Plane and Zack Stortini cycled the puck to Mark Arcobello who scored his sixth goal of his time with the Barons. A docile period one would end with the Barons on top 1-0.
In period two, the Ice Hogs gave the Barons five power play chances and they'd connect on three of them. Colin McDonald would have the frame of his life scoring a hat trick in under thirteen minutes with two of those on the power play. Also scoring on the power play was Philippe Cornet with assists from Ondrus and Kytnar.
Rockford would indeed score one goal early into period three, but Jeff Deslauriers stopped forty shots, and the Barons looked revived.
Oklahoma City Barons at Chicago Wolves
A penalty filled game would give the Barons penalty kill a workout. Yet they persevered and ended the night killing off all five Wolves opportunities.
Colin McDonald would pick up where he left off the night before and in the first ten minutes scored a short hander against Chicago's Edward Pasquale to put OKC up early. Chicago would roar back with two of their own from Andrey Zubarev and Riley Holzapfel as the first period ended with the Barons down 2-1.
Ben Ondrus, Bryan Helmer, and Jesse Gimblett scored three consecutive goals through period two and into period three that pushed the Barons to a 4-2 lead. Gimblett, getting the eventual game winner, scored his first AHL goal in this strong win. The Wolves would attempt a comeback late in period three, but it was too late. The Barons defeated the Chicago Wolves 4-3 in a hostile environment, and suddenly the team was rolling.
Oklahoma City Barons at Chicago Wolves
The third game in three days would finally catch up with the Barons. They'd have seven chances on the power play none of which were successful. And they'd suffer a 50% penalty kill ratio against the surging Wolves forwards.
Deslauriers was decent in this one, but his blue-liners were gassed only fifteen minutes in. Every power play unit played sluggish, safe, and ordinary hockey. A few shots teetered towards redemption, but the wearisome road travel had caught the Barons by the tail.
The Barons would be shutout, and Deslauriers would give up four in a 0-4 route on Sunday afternoon.
I blame the AHL scheduling knuckleheads for this one.
Remember those AHL scheduling knuckleheads? Yeah, they're back.
Oklahoma City at Milwaukee
March 25th, 26th, 27th
Oklahoma City at Houston
Rockford at Oklahoma City
Texas at Oklahoma City (final home game of the season)
Oklahoma City at San Antonio
Oklahoma City at Texas
Oklahoma City at Houston
With Hartikainen, Giroux, O`Marra, and VandeVelde gone who steps up? Easy, Colin McDonald. During the month of March, Colin McDonald has scored eight goals. Mark Arcobello is a distant second with only four goals. Followed by VandeVelde with three. Colin McDonald not only is setting the scoring pace on his team, but also in the league. He's the only active American Leaguer with 32 goals (Nigel Dawes has 33, Mark Mancari has 32 - both are in the NHL right now). He'll probably win the American League goal scoring race, and a better contract from the Oilers.
Martin Gerber's neck is apparently getting better. After leaving the game on Wednesday night, the team took every precaution possible to have Gerber checked out. Everything seems fine, but he's taking it easy. In the meantime, Deslauriers has been better. He still drops quickly and looses sight of the puck on his glove side, but he's getting better at the right time. It will be interesting to see how the season ends for these two goaltenders. Martin Gerber hasn't won a game since March 5th against Abbotsford, and Deslauriers seems to be rising to the occasion. With a little rest, and assuming all really is well with the neck issues, look for Gerber to bounce back.
Here's your Western Conference playoff picture:
Lake Erie - 82
Manitoba - 82
Grand Rapids - 80
Hamilton - 79
Toronto - 78
Houston - 88
Milwaukee - 87
Texas - 82
Oklahoma City - 81
Chicago - 81
Peoria - 81
As of today, there is a three-way tie for fourth in the West with all three of those teams having played 71 games. The predicament for the Barons begins this week. They play both Western Conference powerhouses (Milwaukee and Houston) this week. In addition, they'll play Houston three times in three nights on the road. Yuck. After that they'll get a break at home with Rockford and Texas, but then head back on the road for the final three games. The goin' is getting tough.