ABBOTSFORD - As a pre-season pick to be an AHL powerhouse, the Oklahoma City Barons are still struggling to put it together. Having gone without a goal in over 134 straight minutes dating back to last Saturday's 4-3 shootout loss to the Houston Aeros, the time is now to start turning it around.
And they're tasked to do it against the League's stingiest defence.
Less than 14 hours after Calgary's AHL affiliate, the very same Abbotsford Heat, dismantled the Barons by a 4-0 score spurred by three power-play goals, Head Coach Nelson's message to his players was simple: more shots, less "pretty stuff."
There's nothing pretty about going 0-for-5 with the man-advantage and killing only six of nine opposing power-plays, which was the case Friday night.
"In a nutshell last night, their special teams were better than ours," Nelson said. "As a team we have to be more disciplined because they have a very good power-play. Last night's gone and we have to focus on today, but there were some things that we did do well. I thought our 5-on-5 play was pretty good.
"We need to shoot the puck and get to the net -- in its simplest form."
Nelson didn't go into too many details about any lineup changes, but some are on the way. Taylor Fedun and Mark Arcobello are slated to go back in. Based on the extra work being done by some at Saturday's lightly attended morning skate, Antti Tyrvainen and Martin Marincin will come out.
Yann Danis will start in goal.
"I'm really excited about it," Fedun said post-practice. "I got to watch it yesterday and get a taste of the energy in the building, so I'm really excited to get out there and be a part of it tonight."
Fedun, who's still sporting a full-face shield a la Ryan Nugent-Hopkins because of a minor facial injury, got a bird's eye view of his team's performance last night. While it certainly made him hungrier to get back in, a valuable lesson may have been learned in the process. After all, he'll be an instrumental pivot in the Barons' quest to improve their special teams play tonight.
"A big part of it is our compete level needs to be amped up," he said. "We need to bear down, get gritty and win some battles and come out with the puck instead of playing catch-up all the time."
"We should always be simple," added Magnus Paajarvi, who echoed his coach's sentiment to get a little more ‘greasy.' "Last year in the spring we started playing really good hockey. We called ourselves the 'Greasy Barons' every game and we started winning 3-2, 2-1 -- we played a really simple game, really greasy and played as a team. That's what we should do all the time. When we do, that's when the skill of Hall, Nuge, Ebs (Jordan Eberle) and even me, Harti (Teemu Hartikainen) and everyone comes out. It's going to come (together) when we play a simple game.
"When you look at the names on paper we have a good team, but we can't get caught up in that."
While OKC is struggling to score, the talent is most certainly there to do it. Still, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Justin Schultz have been snake-bitten over the past week and need to be better. As does everyone.
"They're aware of it (the pressure) now," Nelson said about being ‘the hunted.' "Until you really go through it and experience it, it doesn't sink in. These guys are getting keyed on and they've got to learn how to adapt to that. If you're a top guy, you're going to get all the attention. It's a process. We tend to forget that they're still young kids.
"Besides the players that we got from Edmonton, we had a pretty good season last year. Now we have to learn how to deal with (the pressure). It's tough getting to the top and it's even tougher staying there, and right now we're not even closer to being there. We're going to work hard to try and get back to where we were last year -- and we will."
"It's going to happen," added Chris VandeVelde, who's vaulted up the depth chart and will likely play alongside Hall once again tonight. There are a lot of expectations that the team's going to be very good this year and we expected that. We had a good meeting (this morning) and Nelly really preached us shooting the puck and driving the net. If all four lines do that we'll have success.
"We're going to be ready to go tonight."
LAST 10: Heat 7-1-0-2; Barons 5-4-0-1
Season Series: This is the second of four meetings between the Barons and Heat this season. Three power-play goals and a 23-save Danny Taylor shutout helped the Heat burn OKC in the clubs' 2012-13 season series opener one night ago at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. After tonight, these two teams won't meet again until Apr. 19 and 20 in Oklahoma City.
Big Story: Earlier in the week Head Coach Todd Nelson scrambled his line combinations in an effort to produce a more balanced offensive scheme. Problem is, while he needed others to contribute beyond the Barons' Big 3 (Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall), the well has dried up completely in recent games.
OKC's 0-for-5 outing with the man-advantage helped contribute to it -- the team has now gone two straight games without scoring a goal. Meanwhile, the Heat -- whose win bumps them to second overall in the Western Conference (7-1-0-2, 16 points) -- can't relate. They decimated the Barons' penalty kill by clicking along with three power-play markers on nine attempts.
Just how special are these special teams, anyway?
"Special teams -- once again," Nelson laughed, shaking his head post-game Friday night. "We (didn't) capitalize on our opportunities and our PK has to get better. It's been our Achilles Heel and right now we're shooting ourselves in the foot."
Heading into last night's game, the Barons' penalty kill was operating at a 71.1 (ie. not good enough) percent success rate.
Heat: Currently on a three-game winning streak and having only lost once in regulation time to this point in the season, the Heat are the class of the AHL's Western Conference. In particular, Roman Horak and Sven Baertschi have been pivotal in that success, but it's the team's run of commitment to special teams that's proving most vital.
Five Barons power-play opportunities were killed Friday, improving Abbotsford's success rate to a 97.8-percent clip -- 44 man-disadvantages killed while surrendering but a single goal. Add that to a Top 5 PP and good things will happen.
Barons: As Head Coach Todd Nelson alluded to, OKC's weapons are cocked and loaded, but aren't used as intended. Right now the barrel is stuck aiming at the ground. In Friday's third period, the Barons came out with a strong surge and looked to be gaining traction in the remaining 20.
Colten Teubert set the tone with a hard hit on Max Reinhart, but was punished with a minor penalty. The troops rallied and killed it off, but the momentum was promptly dispatched by taking an additional three minor penalties in quick succession, leading to the Heat's fourth goal of the night on a 5-on-3.
"We wanted to come out and have a good period, but we came out and took six penalties," Nelson said. "It's the sign of a team that has to mature together. It's a learning experience for everybody. As a team we have to learn to channel that aggression in the right way. We can't take undisciplined penalties like that, especially when our PK hasn't been very strong."
20 minutes prior that three-goal, third-period deficit was engineered by brain cramps, missteps, miscues and misfortunes. Just ask Martin Marincin. In a play that resembled Steve Smith's infamous own-goal back in 1986, No. 28 mirrored it to perfection by banking a pass in off Magnus Paajarvi's skate and into his own net.
All of it is a piece of the puzzle that makes up a complete 60-minute effort. At 5-5-0-1, the Barons are still searching for one this season.
Puck Drop: Having a short memory is a prerequisite in pro sports. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is only 19 and a veteran of only one NHL season, but he's learned to move on and redirect his attention to where it's most needed. Friday's loss was a disappointing one but, particularly in the American Hockey League when weekend sets are the norm, second chances do exist.
"It's good to have a quick turnaround and play them again," he said. "I know we're going to come out flying (Saturday) night."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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