PREVIEW: Barons at Griffins - Game 1
Barons, Griffins open Western Conference Final tonight in Grand Rapids
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PUCK DROP: 5:00 p.m. MST
AT THE MORNING SKATEGRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Finally, after an eight-day break, the agonizing wait is over.
Tonight the AHL Western Conference Final kicks off with Game 1 between the Oklahoma City Barons and Grand Rapids Griffins at Van Andel Arena.
And the visitors can't wait to get going.
"It's been a long week for us," chuckled winger Teemu Hartikainen, who's collected four goals and 11 points so far in the post-season. "We've had a lot of days off (since the last series), which gave us some good time to spend with our wives, girlfriends and families. But everyone is ready to go and start the new series now. Everyone is full of energy. You saw in the pre-game skate, everyone is happy and we're ready to go."
The Barons haven't played since May 16 after dispatching the Texas Stars 5-1 in Game 5, winning their second round series four games to one.
"The only way you can look at it is as a positive," said defenceman Taylor Fedun. "We got the right mixture of rest and high-intensity practices, so we're going to pick up right where we left off."
Cashing the game-winning goal in Games 4 and 5 vs. Texas and recording a +10 in as many games, Fedun and his strong post-season play has punctuated the success of a Barons defence core that has risen to the challenge.
Randy Jones leads the AHL in playoff plus/minus (+14). Fedun sits second, while fellow rookie Martin Marincin ranks fourth at +8 behind Syracuse's Matt Taormina. With lethal scorers such as Tomas Tatar, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco and a host of others lining up against them, the Barons' strong play on the back end will have to continue if they hope to put a dent in the Griffins' home ice advantage.
"We've been trying to keep things simple," said Fedun. "They've got a well-balanced attack -- four lines that have really been contributing for them and D men who are offensively dangerous as well. Both teams have proven that you need a well-balanced attack to get this far in the post-season, so that's something that we're going to have our hands full with tonight.
"Every time we've had breakdowns on the back end, Yann (Danis) has been great for us back there."
Danis has, indeed, been sensational. The 31-year-old veteran has posted a 7-3-0 record, 2.19 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in the playoffs.
Interestingly enough, however, Danis struggled mightily this season vs. Grand Rapids. In two appearances (1-1-0), he allowed 10 goals while recording a 6.00 goals-against average and .783 save percentage.
Of course, that doesn't tell the whole story. Since Jan. 19 (when the NHL season began), the Barons posted a 22-9-0-6 regular-season record, losing consecutive games (in regulation or overtime) only once. Perhaps most importantly, that includes a pair of wins over the Griffins on consecutive nights back in early February, launching the Barons to a 2-1-0-1 season-series victory.
OKC's .676 standing point percentage was second only to the Providence Bruins, who have since been eliminated.
That success has continued through Rounds 1 and 2 of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Simply put, the Barons are playing at their best at the most critical point in the 2012-13 campaign.
"We are, but we don't want to sit back on that too much," said captain Josh Green, who's one of four Barons forwards to be scoring at or above a point-per-game pace in the post-season. "We know we've been playing well, but it's a new series now. It's 0-0 and anything we've done in the past really doesn't matter now. We want to keep improving and keep playing well."
"We've really come into our own," added Fedun. "We started playing some meaningful games down the stretch and were able to rise to the occasion. That's what we're doing and will hopefully continue to do here tonight."
The Barons are a relaxed group heading into Game 1, but are understanding of the challenge ahead. Ending the year with a 42-26-4-4 record (92 points), Grand Rapids will have home ice advantage -- but OKC has every intention of stealing it away.
"It's going to be a tough game for sure," said Green. "We're opening in their building, so they're going to have their fan support with them. It's going to be loud in here. We've got to channel our emotions, especially early.
"We're going to have to make sure that we're limiting our turnovers and really playing a simple game. That's what we've done recently and that's been how we've been getting our wins.
"We need more of that there tonight."
Playoff Record: Barons: 7-3-0; Griffins: 7-4-0.
Setting the Stage: Oklahoma City has reached the Western Conference Final for the second consecutive season after knocking off the Charlotte Checkers and Texas Stars in Rounds 1 and 2. The Barons come into Friday's opener having won three straight and six of their past seven games. In four regular-season meetings with the Griffins in 2012-13, the Barons collected a 2-1-0-1 record, winning the season series and both games at home at the Cox Convention Center.
Oklahoma City hasn't played since May 16 when the Barons dispatched the Stars 5-1 in Game 5, winning the series four games to one. Grand Rapids, meanwhile, wrapped up its series vs. Toronto this past Tuesday.
All-time, the Barons are 3-2-0-3 at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids.
Barons: Posting a stunning 2.19 goals-against average and .935 save percentage, goaltender Yann Danis has been exceptional so far in the post-season. And while the 31-year-old veteran has been stellar at keeping pucks out, the Barons have been potting them at will at the other end.
Mark Arcobello (15 points), Toni Rajala, (13), Teemu Hartikainen (11) and Josh Green (10) are all scoring at or above a point-per-game pace through 10 contests in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Arcobello in particular has been unstoppable, factoring in on more than a quarter of the Barons' League-leading 42 post-season goals.
The 24-year-old is currently on a five-game goal streak, which is the longest in AHL post-season play since Binghamton Senators forward Bobby Butler (now with the Nashville Predators) did it from April 20 to 28, 2011.
Griffins: Like Danis for the Barons, rookie netminder Petr Mrazek has been vital to the team's success. The 20-year-old boasts a 7-4-0 record, 2.19 goals-against average (identical to Danis') and a .906 save percentage with two shutouts.
Up front, Grand Rapids is missing its leading regular-season point-producer, Gustav Nyquist, who's currently up with the Detroit Red Wings. Tomas Tatar leads the Griffins in post-season scoring with eight goals and 11 points.
Watch out for 20-year-old second-round pick Tomas Jurco. Highlighting a roster with 20 (of 30) players born in the 1990's, the product of Kosice, Slovakia, has recorded four goals and eight points in 11 playoff games.
Special, Special Teams: The Barons come into Game 1 with their power-play operating at an 18.6 percent success rate (8-for-43). The Griffins aren't far behind, leveraging their man-advantage for eight goals as well, succeeding on 15.1 percent of their opportunities.
Injury Report: Anton Lander (lower body) is doubtful; Curtis Hamilton (knee surgery) is out; Dan Ringwald (concussion); Alex Plante (broken jaw) is out.
Puck Drop: Head Coach Todd Nelson is expected the roll the same lines he went with in last week's Game 5 victory over the Texas Stars:
Philippe Cornet - Mark Arcobello - Jonathan Cheechoo
Toni Rajala - CJ Stretch - Teemu Hartikainen
Josh Green - Chris VandeVelde - Tyler Pitlick
Ben Eager - Tanner House - Antti Tyrvainen
Yann Danis will likely get the start in goal.
Scratches: Kendall McFaull, Travis Ewanyk, Ryan Martindale, David Musil, Joey Leach, Colten Teubert, Darcy Hordichuk, Martin Gernat, Kristians Pelss and Ryan Martindale.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick