It's been quite some time since a large amount of Maple Leafs' hockey was played in the state of Oklahoma. As a matter of fact, from the years of 1973-1976 the Oklahoma City Blazers farmed for the Toronto based NHL team, and featured some names you might recognize. Names like Jim Harrison - who played for the Bruins, was shipped to Toronto, followed by Edmonton. Somewhere in that timeline this Alberta native played 43 games in Oklahoma City. There was also Claire Alexander -- a defenseman from Ontario who spent the better part of three seasons in the minors of Oklahoma with skeds in Toronto thrown in for good measure. Nicknamed "The Milkman", he too would land a spot with the WHA Edmonton Oilers towards the end of his career. Then there's Pat Boutette, a Minnesota U - Duluth grad that was a feisty right winger. He had a ten year NHL career including time in Toronto, Hartford, and Pittsburgh. But it all began with 147 games in Oklahoma City, and nearly as many points in that span. And finally Oklahoma City welcomed Tiger Williams, the scrappy second round draft pick who was considered "too small" and "poor at fighting" who later on would prove the world wrong by earning nearly 4,000 penalty minutes in his pro career. And the most in NHL history. While in OKC he earned 202 penalty minutes in under 40 games.
Woven deeply in the hockey culture in Oklahoma is a of thread blue and white. And as strange as it might sound, it feels like a bit of a homecoming for the Marlies, as they head to Oklahoma City to face the Barons in the AHL Western Conference Finals.
Indeed, the hockey historians will remember those names (and likely Bruce McCurdy; our resident hockey historian), but the sight of the maple leaf in Oklahoma hasn't been very prevalent in the last thirty-five years. And ironically, a Stanley Cup hasn't been won for the organization in that time period either.
In the year 2012 the Marlies will head to Oklahoma for what will likely be an exhilarating Western Conference Final. These two teams don't know each other that well, and will probably surpass the number of times they've played during the regular season in two years (4) within the seven game series. This season the two teams met twice and split the two games. Last season - same results. The Barons have won two at home. The Marlies have won two at home. This only complicates matter for both teams because, to put it simply, they don't know each other. And what they do know, looks eerily familiar.
The West Final will pit #1 versus #2, but it was nearly the other way around. Oklahoma City dipped towards the end of the season after rolling opponents in the first 3/4ths of the season. The Marlies did the complete opposite. Towards the back half of the season they surged, and surged hard. So much so that they nearly knocked the Barons off as the top team in the West heading into the Calder Cup playoffs (Barons won out by only 3 standing points). And so this series will be interesting to say the least.
During the regular season these two foes were spooky-like familiar. Goals against - Barons 176 Marlies 175. Goals scored - Barons 213 Marlies 217. Penalty kill - Barons 85.6% Marlies 88.1%. But it's worth pointing out, mainly because the regular season proved the point, the Barons play better on the road and the Marlies play better at home. And it's OKC with the home ice advantage. Hang on to that juicy tidbit.
The path for Oklahoma City was fairly simple, but not without the drama. They steamrolled the offensively weak and defensively lazy Houston Aeros. They shifted gears slightly to defend and protect the puck more as they bested the San Antonio Rampage in five games thanks to three straight OT games, and some unlikely heroics. And so the first two rounds proved a few things for OKC. They can defend well. They can sometimes score on the power play. The penalty kill got abused in the second round care of a fantastic Rampage power play. And this team is only as good as their starting netminder, Yann Danis.
For the Marlies, the story is quite similar. Toronto swept the Rochester Americans in four straight games in round one. They lost the opening game in the second round to the Abbotsford Heat, and then won four straight including the last in overtime. Now at 7-1 in the postseason, the Marlies are every bit the dominate team in the West that the Barons have been. They've got scoring, special teams magic, solid prospect goodness, and dynamite goaltending. So, that these two teams would meet in the Conference Finals has the American League, as well as two "rebuilding" NHL counterparts, frenzied with anticipation.
Digesting the "who" of the Marlies highlights the key to their success.
Goaltender Ben Scrivens has been the best minor league tender in the postseason -- by a landslide. A record of 7-1, GAA of 1.61, and a SV% of .944 is absolutely other worldly. He's peaking at the right time. In 8 games, giving up 13 goals is breath taking in any postseason in any league. Scrivens has done just that.
Offensively...where do I start? Jerry D'Amigo, the left winger from New York, is only in his second full season of farm play. This post season, he's been striking. 6 goals, 3 assists, a league leading +10, and high as a kite after scoring the OT game winner against Abbotsford -- he's been beyond good. Veteran centerman, Mike Zigomanis, has scored 3 goals in the posteason -- all of them on the power play. Nazim Kadri continues to be the Leafs' most important prospect (Toronto version of Linus Omark?) with a point a game pace through eight games (3-5). Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner, who've both spent time in the Toronto big leagues this season, have been fabulous as well. Frattin with 5 goals and 2 assists, Gardiner with 1 goal and 4 assists. The score sheets from their first eight games are wildly successful on the offensive side of the puck.
And here is how those players have fit into the lineup on a consistent basis:
Jerry D`Amigo - Nazem Kadri - Matt Frattin
Marcel Mueller - Philippe Dupuis - Nicolas Deschamps
Ryan Hamilton - Mike Zigomanis - Greg Scott
Kelsey Wilson - Carter Ashton - Colton Orr
Juraj Mikus - Simon Gysbers
Jesse Blacker - Jake Gardiner
Korbinian Holzer - Mark Fraser
The similarities between the Marlies and Barons continue. Notice three legit scoring lines, and the potentiality for a fourth random goal from the bottom moppers. The top line, primarily, is the one that soars consistently, and the Barons will have their work cut out stopping those three (wake up Antti Tyrvainen!). They are quick. They are agile. They are talented. They can score from just about any angle. They aren't afraid to shoot. Sound familiar?
With the series beginning Thursday at 7pm, look for the special teams to be the deciding factor. The team with the fewest mistakes early is the victor in this series, even through seven exhausting games. The deeper we go round-by-round, the more likely teams are to fade. The Barons proved they can overcome in-game fades, but can they surge back after getting down a goal, maybe two. Indeed they can, but that's not a position you want your squad to be in with five minutes left in regulation.
The defensive core for the Barons will need to be stronger than it ever has before. Bryan Helmer, Alex Plante, Dylan Yeo, Dan Ringwald, etc. will need to have fresh legs, and try their best to keep the Marlies offense in front of them. They'll also need to protect Danis, who proved wobbly when sticks get active in front of the net (see: Rampage PP)
There's a good mix of vet and up-and-comer on this Toronto team. And with both NHL parent clubs absent from postseason play, both squads are proving their individual value, as well as their overall commitment to the team in the greater future. Hang on tight. It will be a dandy.
- At this week's coaches show, Todd Nelson mentioned injuries to top line center Josh Green as well as multi-tasker Hunter Tremblay. Two things to consider if these two are out for the first two games (which Coach hinted at). Green is a playmaker down the center. His prescence will be missed, but they have proved they can overcome without him. Tremblay is a different story. He does so many things so well that the team takes a hit with him out. Known for strong PK skills, short handed goal scoring, fast feet, and scoring prowess, his swiss army bag of tools is something OKC needs to succeed. It has been rumored that Triston Grant will ease in somewhere in the lineup, and surprisingly so will Curtis Hamilton. The latter hasn't played since the end of February. Nelson says he's ready. Fingers crossed.
- In Toronto injury news, Carter Ashton (concussion) won't be ready for game one. Matt Lashoff might make an appearance. See below for the details.
- The Marlies are the only real threat to the Barons in the post season (East excluded). Although it seemed dire at times against San Antonio, the better all around team won out. If this upcoming Western Final doesn't go to seven full games I'll be shocked. The mirror images that these two teams reflect is uncanny. Dialing in on one key to success will be tough, and likely have to be viewed on a game-by-game basis. You have to think that with Scrivens playing so well, that Danis will have to be a smidge better. A tall feat for the seasoned tender to meet, but one that he's fully capable of committing to.
- Good friend and fellow hockey writer, Patricia, has been hard at work this season. She brought some incredible player interviews to the table. In addition she has interviewed a plethora of Barons fans, and with great success. Read her work here, drop a comment, and let her know if you'd like to be interviewed about Barons hockey.
- Leafs TV and Rogers have promised to play all away and home Marlies games in the West Finals. For those in Canada who this effects, congrats! We in Oklahoma still don't have an option to view (legally) except for the terribly AHL Live feed. And FM radio. Moving on...
- The Oklahoma City Thunder are the hot ticket in the city these days. Even a handful of Barons were in attendance during game one against the LA Lakers. More than anything, there commentary on attendance is worth a mentioning. Tyler Pitlick said, "Couldnt even imagine how cool it would be to play in that building in front of all those fans... #unreal". And Ryan Keller had a similar sentiment. "20,000 people at game 1 for the Thunder whats the odds of getting 25% of them to the Barons vs Marlies game 1? #OKCBarons
"People discount how competitive this kid is," Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins said. "He wants to be on the ice always, he's got fire in his gut and he wants to win. Those are the main things I want in a player.
"Every time he steps over the boards he's a real danger to score ... he's made great strides in managing the puck, he's better in his own zone. He's come a long way from where he was a year ago."
Phillipe Dupuis leads the Marlies with 31 shots in 8 games. Let's remember that this guy didn't have a point in 30 games as a Maple Leaf. He has really stepped up his game with the Marlies.
Matt Lashoff, injured in October, played in game four against Abbotsford. Over the years, Matt has been a fantastic leader on and off the ice. His presence on this team has been missed. Don't count him out in the West Finals:
"Once the injury happened, it was a pretty big shock to my system," said the 25-year-old. "I pretty much focused on setting my mind set straight, once I got the surgery, to work hard and I gave myself the goal of coming back for the playoffs."
"I had a lot of confidence in him, so I had absolutely no reservations," said Coach Eakins. "He's a veteran guy that has worked extremely hard to come back from a real tough injury. The other thing about Lashoff is he's a great leader. He's a guy that you want in your dressing room, a part of your team."
"They have a great system with a lot of weapons," said Hamilton, the Marlies' captain. "They've captured some of the skill players that were playing well for Edmonton."
"We're doing some great things in these playoffs," Hamilton said. "We know what we have to work on (power plays and slow starts). It's a special feeling to be playing hockey when the weather in Toronto is this warm and we feel the city getting behind us."
If Oklahoma City were to win the Calder Cup, it would mark the fourth straight season a former Tiger has won that championship (Raymond, 2011, Binghamton, Steve Pinizzotto, 2009 and 2010, Hershey).
"Some things stand out," Nelson said. "Both teams had low goals-against, both teams have good goaltending, both teams have a good mix of forwards and defense, both teams also have depth.
"I expect this series to be a hard-fought battle by both teams. I expect it to maybe go the distance. We're pretty similar in a lot of areas."
The series begins Thursday in Oklahoma City. Game can be watched via LeafsTV/Rogers, AHLLive.com, KXXY 96.1, iHeartRadio (app/online), and SportsJuice.com. Tune in, cheer the Barons, and watch two great teams battle it out in the minors.
Western Conference Finals - Series "N" (best-of-7)
1-Oklahoma City Barons vs. 2-Toronto Marlies
Game 1 - Thurs., May 17 - Toronto at Oklahoma City, 8:00
Game 2 - Fri., May 18 - Toronto at Oklahoma City, 8:00
Game 3 - Mon., May 21 - Oklahoma City at Toronto, 3:00
Game 4 - Wed., May 23 - Oklahoma City at Toronto, 7:00
*Game 5 - Fri., May 25 - Oklahoma City at Toronto, 7:00
*Game 6 - Mon., May 28 - Toronto at Oklahoma City, 8:00
*Game 7 - Wed., May 30 - Toronto at Oklahoma City, 8:00