Texas. The state directly to our south that permeates bigger and better just by the mere mention of its name. Like so many in the state of Oklahoma, my thoughts on Texas are viewed through the rose-colored glasses of college football. I’ve lived in Oklahoma long enough that a Red River Rivalry mention instantly perks my ears towards the general direction of a corn dog at the State Fair. Outside of NCAA collegiate athletics, I think I like Texas. There some good folk down there. Chances are that you’ll find me making the three hour trip to Dallas at least a dozen times a year. I love the wild openness of the west plains. I admire the melting pot of diversity contained within its vast borders. I watch the Dallas Stars on Fox Sports SW from the comfort of my own home. I love the border towns neighboring on Mexico. I like their BBQ. I love their country/folk musicians. Generally speaking, Texas is a vast country adrift in the United States. It’s also a place I’m fond of.
John Steinbeck, the Pulitzer Prize winning author (Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice And Men, etc. etc.), wasn’t a Texan, but rather a California kid. He, like me, found the mystique of Texas to be fascinating. In his incredible road trip memoir that featured Steinbeck and his poodle Charley (Travels With Charley; read it, it’s fantastic), meandering through the back-roads of Texas in a travel camper, wrote an incredible summation of the state. He said:
“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
I admire his humble brag of a state that he was unfamiliar with in the early 60’s. I also admire his spot-on description that still rings true in 2013.
There’s a sentence in that amazing paragraph that is a perfect summation of sports teams from Texas. “Tight”, “Cohesiveness”, “Stronger than any other”, all are replicated into the collective heartbeat of so many franchises in that state. A minor league hockey team just out side of Austin included.
The Texas Stars have long been an admirable foe of the Oklahoma City Barons. The AHL salivated at the thought of “Oklahoma” playing “Texas”, and a huge chunk of a season for OKC farm hockey is against opponents from Texas. However, the plan to create a rivalry between the Stars and the Barons, in particular, has taken time, as most rivalries do. Sometimes I wonder if the league is disappointed that both squads don’t line brawl at least once a season, but I think they’d be wrong in defining rivalry if they did so. These two teams are built well, and have been for a while. Minus a Texas Stars hiccup a year ago, both are about as consistent a winning product as you’ll find. Coached well, occasionally rough around the edges, strong in net, prospect driven, sturdy, reside in great towns, and the comparisons go on and on and on. Through their similarities comes a great struggle, a battle if you will. A version of both teams that desperately wants to just beat the stuffing out of each other, not with our fists (although that happens from time to time), but with the goals on the big board. This season is no exception.
Thursday night, the Oklahoma City Barons travel to Cedar Park, Texas to take on the Texas Stars in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Despite historical similarities, the seasons have been quite different when comparing the two squads. In the end, it was the Barons squeaking into the playoffs, and the Stars pummeling competition in the last half of the season to finish the first seed in the West. The struggles, post-lockout, were quickly rectified by the Stars first, then eventually the Barons. Had the season been 10 games longer, perhaps the Stars lose that #1 spot, and maybe they lose that spot to the Barons. Thus the battle becomes intensified as the hot-towards-the-end Barons square off against the consistently-better-arc Stars meet for what will likely be an epic seven game series.
You look at the season series and subtly roll your eyes because it feels like two halves of a tasty sandwich with one side being peanut butter, the other strawberry jelly of the gods. 8-3-0-1 is the season mark. The Oklahoma City Barons virtually owned the Stars, during the lockout rolling up five wins and only a single loss. All six games were two-goal-or-better victories minus the 5-4 away victory by Oklahoma City two days after Christmas. Post-lockout Barons vs. Stars was different. The games got tighter with four of the six being decided by one goal, and the “W’s” decreased for the Barons. Three straight losses against the Stars in one month followed by three straight victories to end the season, told a slightly different story. The narrative was simple – the Barons were a better team in the lockout, the Stars became better in the last half of the season. So don’t be fooled by the season series numbers as I have.
Home vs. Away is always interesting, and ironically enough the Barons have won as many at home as they have on the road during the regular season of 2012-2013. That’s important because these two teams have faced each other only once since March 3rd.
When you get right down to it, the Texas Stars are built around so many weapons – offensively and defensively – that it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they are out-manned in any facet of the game. I’ll once again dive into the well of goaltending because this will be huge. Yann had a pretty good round one, but it wasn’t as good as the Stars’ Cristopher Nilstorp who only let in four goals (in regulation) in four games in over 250 minutes of playing time. Yowza. His save percentage is off the charts at a whopping .963, a pace that he can’t keep up, right? But here’s the interesting angle, like Danis, Nilstorp bettered as the first round against Milwaukee soldiered on. The Stars were an overtime loss away from being down 0-1 in the series after game one. They eventually lost game two in regulation by two goals, but then Cris got really good, and so did the rest of his team. I’m absolutely convinced that Yann Danis can steal a series, but I’m not sure that he’s going to outplay his counterpart with the Stars. That brings me to defense.
The Barons went through a bit of a change when Alex Plante injured his jaw thus rendering him done for the remainder of the playoffs. In came Colten Teubert to be the “heavy”, and he played poorly. Enter Andrew Hotham, who’s a puck mover moreso than Teubert, and against Charlotte that worked perfectly fine. In a series with Texas, where the offense is even more well-rounded, Colten might be the better option. Speaking of puck movers, Kevin Connauton is having a dynamo of a post season. Four games, four points (2G,2A), he’s really moving the puck well, and taking the risks on net that adds a wrinkle to the offensive push forward for Texas.
Maxime Fortunus, and a handful of young defenders are playing very well. Jamie Oleksiak and Joe Morrow are good, solid, and prompt defenders. Much like the Barons, the Stars are leaning on some rookie prospects to lead the defensive charge, while being backstopped by a few veterans for balance. I expect Texas to be even more tough with some rest.
Offensively speaking, outside Connauton, the Stars bring the heat from Matt Fraser, Brett Ritchie, and Alex Chiasson. That’s a scary group of youngsters, and they’ll pepper Danis with good chances. They also have no qualms with knifing through lanes, placing them on the doorstep of the goaltender, and getting tenacious in the crease. They are equally as impressive away from the puck where positioning is everything, and a handful of forwards on the Stars have a knack for being in the right spot at the right time.
Oklahoma City is no slouch either, but I’d be foolish to trump their goal scoring frenzy against the Charlotte as anything more than a product of bad goaltending. Madore got hammered hard in the last two games, the Barons punished him at every opportunity. Between the defensive front of Texas and Nilstorp as the final brick wall before the promised land, things will look vastly different. Don’t expect high scoring games unless a goaltender chooses to have his doors blow off one night, because it won’t happen.
Josh Green, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Mark Arcobello will be integral parts to the success of the Barons in the second round. Cheech likes to disappear, and we’ve only recently discovered that Green has another gear in 2013. All three will need to be strong to survive this one. Add Toni Rajala, Anton Lander, and Teemu Hartikainen to that list, and with the six top offensive fellas firing on all cylinders, you’ll be hard pressed to find a team with more potency.
How does this one end up? And how do you beat the Stars?
I’ll start with the second question first. To beat the Stars you have to get nasty. Not Hordichuk nasty, but Hartikainen nasty. If more than half your shots takes place outside the scoring chance box, you aren’t doing something right. Play the puck strong up the ice, place yourself in positions of scoring, and nail Nilstorp on his welcome mat. Going the other direction, if the Stars get into a ping-pong match up the ice, the OKC defense might break early. Keep the play in front of you, and if you’re a forward be prepared to help on the backside. Don’t let the rush smack you in the mouth. Be calm, steady, and calculated. Oh, and Danis…be great.
I have thus far been pretty good at predicting outcomes in the Calder Cup Playoffs, and I picked the Barons to win in five last go round (which they did). I just really really really like Texas. I like their mix of solid vet vs. solid prospect. I like their coaching staff, who are crafty by nature (that’s a good thing). I like that they are tough, but agile. I like that they are smart, but forthright. Winning in Cedar Park is going to be a hard, and if OKC goes down two games early, it will be so so hard to pull out of the pit. Thus, I’m picking the Texas Stars in seven. I think the Barons get outdone by Nilstorp, and I think the forwards will be frustrated by the speed and tenacity of the Stars defenders. Yuck, I hate everything about this paragraph.
Here’s the series schedule:
Western Conference Semifinal – Series “K” (best-of-7)
1-Texas Stars vs. 5-Oklahoma City Barons
Game 1 – Thu., May 9 – Oklahoma City at Texas, 7:30
Game 2 – Sat., May 11 – Oklahoma City at Texas, 7:30
Game 3 – Mon., May 13 – Texas at Oklahoma City, 7:00
Game 4 – Wed., May 15 – Texas at Oklahoma City, 7:00
*Game 5 – Thu., May 16 – Texas at Oklahoma City, 7:00
*Game 6 – Mon., May 20 – Oklahoma City at Texas, 7:30
*Game 7 – Tue., May 21 – Oklahoma City at Texas, 7:30
Likely Starting Lineup For OKC:
For those Barons fans in Cedar Park a preferred rate is being offered for those making the trip. Go Barons!