Game six felt like a farewell expedition into the Congo. There was luggage (and baggage). There were sweaty, bearded men. There were mythological creatures to be seen. There were grand statements made. The dark, twisy, and sometimes frightening turns down the way were littered with stories of conquers and conquests. But as the sun faded the river came to life, and suddenly things didn’t look so pristine and beautiful. What lurked in the distance was far more frightening than one could imagine. Off in the distance, there it was, a hockey team poised to steal game six away from the team that had buried them in two straight games prior. Through the muck and the mire they emerged victorious. They’d score three goals in the final eleven minutes of regulation. We’d marvel at their achievement, cheer their progress, and remember not their indiscretions.
On Tuesday night, down three games to two, the Oklahoma City Barons would defeat the Grand Rapids Griffins 4-3 to force a game seven. A GAME SEVEN!
The referees in the first period were fast and loose with the whistles, and apparently were bent on keeping things as tidy as can be. A rough a high stick a goaltender interference, and a trip gave the Oklahoma City Barons three straight power plays with the finale being nearly a full ninety seconds with a two man advantage. It would finally pay off and the scoreless streak would end on a Mark Arcobello goal assisted by Taylor Fedun and Anton Lander. The power play tally felt like a collective sigh of relief for the Barons who’ve struggled mightily on the power play.
With a 1-0 lead, the Barons would take three straight penalties themselves including a holding and high stick double dip that gave the Griffins their own version of the two man advantage. Like clockwork they’d score. Tomas Jurco, scoring his sixth goal of the postseason, would make it 1-1 after the first period.
Despite a tie game, an opening goal scored, and the power play totals headed in the right direction, OKC would begin the second period with a solid two shifts. But a brutal series for Garrett Stafford and Brandon Davidson would allow Grand Rapids to take a 2-1 lead within the first five minutes of the second period. Both teams would hunker down a bit, move the puck well, and eyeball another chance to either equalize or pull away. Fourteen minutes removed from the previous Griffins goal, Jeff Hoggan would knife up the left wing and blast a high shot on Yann Danis that the Barons goaltender never saw coming. Three straight goals by Grand Rapids placed them atop the leaderboard with a commanding 3-1 lead.
Then the third period happened.
We’ve seen the Barons score three goals in a period this season. We’ve also seen them do it in this series. The truth is that OKC looked deflated after going down two goals. I was hopeful, but not entirely committed to seeing the Barons roar back to life. In fact, I tweeted that I was just going to enjoy the final 20 minutes of Barons hockey. I assumed it would be the last 20 minutes of the season, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
With the offseason suddenly filling their peripheral, the Oklahoma City Barons staged a monstrous comeback. It began with a solid forecheck, a greasy moment if you will, when Jonathan Cheechoo stole the puck, saucered it to Mark Arcobello where he’d wrist his second of the night past Mrazek, and put the Barons down by only one goal. Keep in mind that this goal arrived nearly halfway through the third frame.
With under three minutes remaining in the game, the Barons again sought good fortune in the wizardly hands of Toni Rajala. After a hard shot on net from Andrew Hotham would bounce off the boards, Rajala would cradle the puck to the right of Petr Mrazek and pot the third Barons goal of the game. With a 3-3 tie, the Griffins began to get the deer-in-the-headlights look about them, and rightfully so.
As the Grand Rapids Griffins got caught in a late third period line change, the Oklahoma City Barons forecheck would again undo a sizable game six lead, and give the away team the lead. Defenseman, Randy Jones, launched the puck on net with just over a minute remaining in regulation, it would be tipped by Anton Lander, and the Barons would complete the impressive come from behind victory in game six of the AHL West Finals.
I could belabor the point in the space below, but I won’t. Plain and simple, the Oklahoma City Barons showed us that they refuse to quit. I thought they had, they showed fans they had, but they hadn’t. With some luck, some smart coaching, and a can-do type attitude, the Barons would survive a dominate first forty minutes by the team from Grand Rapids, and win the most important period of them all.
Give credit to three things for this victory.
First, Yann Danis made some very very important saves that really began as the second period horn resounded. It nearly was 4-1 heading into the third, and Yann prevented that from happening. He even stopped a mid-second penalty shot after Andrew Hotham had no choice but to tear down Tomas Jurco, and that was huge. His movement in the first twenty was bad, he gave up an easy one in the second, but he did a 180 down the stretch. He’s the guy you wanted to carry off Rudy-style after that final goal went in. He was that important.
Second, the forecheck in the third period was far and away the most impressive forecheck the Barons have unfurled in quite some time. They really didn’t have a choice, having to play from behind. It worked so well that is gave heartburn to Griffins defenders and goaltender Petr Mrazek. Grand Rapids got a bit of their own medicine with an OKC swarm-the-net approach to end the game.
I’ll go ahead and give an asteriks next to the name Anton Lander. He does big things, in big minutes, that few Barons centermen do. Assisting on the 5 on 3 power play goal, as well as on the Toni Rajala springboard goal, and netting a tip-in goal to seize the victory – Lander was huge in his return to the Barons postseason run. He was also huge in killing off three big power play chances by the Griffins, and he reminded us why he’s the Swiss Army Knife of minor league farm players. He made his team better almost instantly.
Game seven is twenty four hours later, and the stakes are high. Win and you move on to face the nasty Syracuse Crunch in the Calder Cup Finals. Lose and you head back home to pack your belongings. I feel relatively over anxious about how this plays out. The postgame comments by the Griffins were steely-eyed. “We know what we have to do”, “It’s about winning four games, our goal is to win four games”, “They’ll work hard, we’ll work hard” are all statements that teams are supposed to make. However, when the Griffins say it, they mean it. I fully expect an epic battle in game seven where the special teams again becomes monumental. I’ll go out on a limb and say whomever score more on the PP wins the series. So far both teams have struggled in this regard, but with so much on the line, every little mistake will be embraced by the opponent.
Puck drops at 6pm Central Time on Wednesday night. If you’re able to catch the game, do yourself and favor and tune in. It’s going to be full of entertainment.