Nelson: "There’s no pressure on us."
The Oklahoma City Barons take on the top-seeded Texas Stars in the opening round of the AHL playoffs and for the first time in a long time, there's no pressure.
|Photo provided by Rob Ferguson|
The Texas Stars, affiliate of the Dallas Stars, have coasted through the regular season and head into the playoffs as the hottest team in the American Hockey League. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Barons took a much longer, tougher and emotionally draining path to the playoffs, clinching the 8th seed with one game remaining in the regular season.
“It seems like every night was another must-win game,” Oilers 2011 third-round pick Travis Ewanyk said. “We’re going to Charlotte or Texas or Grand Rapids and each one of these weekends are do or die. We kept our heads above water and winning those last two games against Iowa were huge. Just the way we did it, it’s really a good confidence builder for the younger guys. Some of those games when the older guys were up with the Oilers, it was kind of our team to play with and all the guys were calling us a junior squad or something like that but I think everyone came together and played hard.”
Over 150 roster transactions, player turnover, beginning the season with young and inexperienced defencemen, the loss of scoring ace Mark Arcobello to the NHL and then again to injury, call ups of key players like Anton Lander, Tyler Pitlick and Oscar Klefbom were all just some of the road bumps and obstacles the Barons faced on their path to the playoffs.
“I think from our staff’s point of view, we’re very proud of each other and how we got this team here,” Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson said. “It’s truly remarkable because two and a half months ago, it didn’t look good at all and then all of the sudden we started putting a pretty good run together. It’s a testament to the guys in the dressing room. They all stuck together and it didn’t matter who we had in the lineup, they’re all tugging on the rope at the same time. From our staff’s perspective, it’s really gratifying. It’s probably our most gratifying moment over the past four years.”
After scratching and clawing and at times, barrelling their way to earning points in 24 of their final 31 games to reach the playoffs, the Barons can relax, refocus and regroup for their battle with Texas, which begins Wednesday night.
“I think for me personally, the biggest thing is getting into playoffs,” said goalie Richard Bachman, who was instrumental in the nearly improbable run. “We had a pretty impressive stretch and run there since the first of the year. Now that we’re in, it kind of gives you a little relief and a little satisfaction which feels good. It kind of refreshes you and gets you going for playoffs. For me, in the playoffs, it’s just about giving the team a chance to win every night you can and that’s what I’m going to try and do.”
|Photo by OilersTV
Texas comes into town as a dominant team in the west. With 106 points on the season, the Stars are top dog in the AHL and are 12-1-0-1 in their last 14 games of the season. Three of the top 11 scorers in the league this regular season wear the green, black and gold. Oklahoma City’s has two in the top 40 (Roman Horak finished 28th and Anton Lander was 36th).
What the Barons do have going for them is familiarity.
“I think the biggest thing is we’ve seen these guys so many times in the regular season,” Bachman said. “Not only this year but last year, in the playoffs last year so that’s probably got to be 30 games in two years. So both teams know what the other is going to do and what to expect. Now it’s just a matter of playing the systems correctly and playing the right way to get wins.”
Bachman is all too familiar with the Barons-Stars rivalry, having backstopped the Dallas Stars organization from the 2009-10 season to last year. He’ll get the bulk, if not all of the action between the pipes for the Barons in this series and he’s excited for the opportunity.
“It’s funny how it works in the hockey world,” the goalie said. “It’ll be really, really fun to play against them not only here but in that building. I know what it’s like to play in playoffs for them. It’s a fun environment so it’s going to be a lot of fun but it would be nice to end their season and kind of give it to them a little bit.”
The Barons were 4-5-2-0 against the Stars this season. However, the Barons were 2-2-1-0 against the Stars after the start of the new year. Their three losses in that time were a one-goal game in regulation, an overtime loss and two-goal loss in regulation with an empty-net goal.
|Photo by Steven Christy/OKC Barons|
The Barons are now rested as well. Six players were sent down by the Oilers at the end of the season. They joined the team in Abbotsford the following day after an emotional close to the Oilers season against Vancouver, Ryan Smyth’s retirement night. They then played four games in seven days with the playoffs in the balance.
“The group that we got back, they were a part of us when we went on two really good runs,” Nelson said. “It was not like they were up there from January on and then they tried to blend in. All of those guys came back with great attitudes. They want to help this team win hockey games and I think the biggest thing with them coming back was just that they were fatigued just with playing the NHL schedule and then with all the movement and the games that we’ve had here and the emotions that go with that in trying to get in the playoffs, I think they were mentally and physically fatigued. But they’re rested up now and they’re ready to go.”
With those reinforcements healthy and ready to go, more could be on the way. The Barons could get back one of their more prolific players in Arcobello. Nelson says the forward has been skating for the past few days and could possibly be ready to return from his shoulder injury on Saturday, game two of the best-of-five series. Arcobello has 28 points (10-18-28) in just 15 games with OKC this season.
The Barons will try to tilt the ice in their favour with the opening two games of the series on home ice. Nelson says it’s going to be about taking Texas’ game and shoving it right back at them.
“We’ve got to play our system very well, we have to work extremely hard,” Nelson said. “It’s a very good team that we’re facing. They’re the top team in the league and we have to be opportunistic with our opportunities and also, I just feel like against a team like Texas we have to give back some of their own medicine by shooting the puck. The team that we’re playing against, they shoot the puck from everywhere. They generate at least 40-plus shots and we have to do the same thing. Special teams are going to be a very big key for both teams. We both have strong power plays. It’s one of those things, in its simplest form, we have to have strong special teams and play a solid 5-on-5 game.”
Focused on their goals, relaxed after their long push to the playoffs, rolling on the power play and hungry for more success, the Barons head into the opening series as the underdogs, but don’t count them out.
“I think our guys feel pretty good right now,” Nelson said. “They know that we’ve played well against Texas and we’re not expected to win so there’s no pressure on us.”