The Barons, coming off three straight wins, set their eyes towards the south and a date with the league-leading Texas Stars on Friday night. With both teams realizing that points are necessary and a hot commodity down the stretch, a heated exchange was likely. And indeed, Friday night was round one of this South Division rivalry, and it was a wild one. The Texas Stars would ultimately put away the Oklahoma City Barons in ten rounds of a shootout after overcoming a 3-1 deficit.
The first period began with some great stops by Barons goaltender Niko Hovinen, who hasn’t faced a barrage of shots this season to the degree that he did in this opening frame. And that was an encouraging sight to behold. When the dust settled on the first period, Hovinen would stop seventeen of eighteen shots, with the only goal of the period coming late via a Texas Stars power play goal by left winger Mike Hedden. Despite two power play opportunities for the Barons, they’d only muster six shots the entire period, and close out the first twenty minutes with a 1-0 deficit.
The second period was a dominate one by OKC and vastly different then the first. The team would tighten the screws defensively and slightly curb the onslaught the Stars had been pouring on early in the game. And on the other side of the puck, they quickened the pace enough to create scoring opportunities of the highest of quality. Scoring first was Kristians Pelss, who up until this point was one of few playing exceptionally for OKC. As Toni Rajala carefully brought the puck through neutral ice, he made a cross ice pass to Pelss who eased in ever so slightly near the right face off dot and wristed a high shot through traffic and into Jack Campbell’s net. A little over two minutes later, Toni Rajala again created an incredible setup of a goal by carefully dangling the puck behind the Stars net, waiting for space to clear in front, and saucering a pass to Josh Green who slapped in the second OKC goal of the night. The period ended with Oklahoma City suffering only one minor penalty and clinging to a 2-1 lead.
The third period carefully unfolded for both squads. Shots were lower, overly zealous offense semi disappeared, and the defense on both sides played intelligent hockey. That is, until it didn’t for Oklahoma City. A rare moment for Oklahoma City came near the seven minute mark as Antti Tyrvainen was awarded a penalty shot after being “messed with” on a breakaway that really could have gone uncalled. Nonetheless, he’d score what would be the first penalty shot goal of the Oklahoma City Barons 3-year-old franchise history, and put OKC on top 3-1. Over a minute later, Mike Hedden would deflect in an Alex Chiasson shot while the Barons defense was caught napping. Suddenly the Stars were within one. Then Theo Peckham, awarded the only penalty of the third period to either team, was whistled for an interference infraction. The Stars would score the equalizing goal courtesy of a Justin Dowling near the twelve minute mark. The final minutes of the third period were kept quiet by goaltenders and careful handling of the puck. The horn would resound as regulation ended in a 3-3 tie.
A huge giveaway by Toni Rajala nearly ended things early in overtime, but Hovinen saved the day. Likewise, Jonathan Cheechoo nearly capitalized on a late OT Jordie Benn penalty, but Jack Campbell kept the puck out of his net. The shootout was forthcoming.
Ten rounds, ended by the recently re-assigned Jamie Oleksiak, the Stars would end a wild game by overcoming a 3-1 deficit and beating the Barons, 4-3 in a shootout.
Toni Rajala continues to do a lot of things right. And tonight, he made two really incredible plays that set up goals. The first, a cross ice pass to Pelss that prospects don’t make often. He cradled the puck, while skating backwards, pulled defensemen towards him, then hit Pelss perfectly on the stick on the other side of the ice. The second, was Linus Omark-esque (I’ve said that before) as he clung to the puck behind the Stars net, waited, waited, and waited, then hit Josh Green in the center. Both were fantastic examples of what this kid can do, and how quickly he’s acclimated to the pro game. But you still have moments where you remember he’s a rookie. Like when he gives up the puck in an overtime frame. Most of the time he’s a keeper, and he’s worth watching.
Likewise, Kristians Pelss had a contagious energy this evening. One goal, one assist on the night. But more importantly, he was wheeling and dealing the puck when others were stagnant in the first period. He also showed us an impressive shot that has power and accuracy. Perhaps this is the game that pushes him out of the cocoon.
Niko Hovinen was fantasmic in that first period. He eventually would face 41 total shots, more than he’s seen in OKC this season. The assumption this weekend was that Olivier Roy was sent to Stockton only to get extra ice time rather than sitting out. But with Hovinen playing so well, there might be a bit of a good type of logjam going on with Barons goaltenders down the stretch.
Antti Tyrvainen scored the first penalty shot in OKC Barons history. I never would have dreamed that he’d be the one to get it. Well done, Antti.
Nathan Deck, Alex Plante, and Andrew Hotham were your healthy scratches defensively. Plante, now scratched three in a row, seems to be on the outside looking in with recent additions of Brett Clark, Randy Jones, and Theo Peckham. Not good for him. Nathan Deck, who indeed is at the end of his first PTO (no news if he’s signed another), gets nudged out by Theo Peckham. Not good, simply because he’s been a really solid asset over the last three months.
Offensively, Dane Byers was scratched to allow recently demoted Darcy Hordichuk to enter the lineup (icing Byers would have put the Barons over the vet limit). Darcy wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t helpful. He drew two key penalties from Stars players that put the Barons on the ice with an extra skater. He also got idiotic near Jack Campbell and a scrum ensued. He was stuck on a fourth line with Tanner House at center and Erick Lizon on the right. Those three are bruising. Yet they stayed mostly smart tonight in limited roles and minutes, and that’s good. Because those three can’t be contained for much longer.
The same two teams meet again tomorrow. Should be another dandy.