Has the magical mystery tour of Oklahoma City dominance come to an end? Momentarily, yes. The Barons, although not my pick to win the West (I picked Toronto), have continually impressed everyone from fans to writers to coaches and everyone in between. It has felt like a team that was destined to win, and win they have. Just when the team seems unbeatable they go out, lay two eggs, squander momentum, look lifeless, and are pressed up against the wall. Two games against Grand Rapids in two days equaled two sucking-air-out-of-a-beach-ball moments for an OKC squad that has impressed around every turn.
So the question needs to be asked, “Who are you, and what have you done with my Oklahoma City Barons?”
The answer is multifaceted and not exact, but worth pointing out. I’ll give it the old college try.
The one shiny new toy that the Barons pulled high off the shelf, dusted off, and put on display late in the season was both offensive and defensive puck possession. They lived and breathed it. This is one of the reasons that the young defense of OKC has been so so dangerous. They took extra special care of the puck, moved it up ice, but were careful at every turn. Lately that carefulness turned into complacency as we watched Andrew Hotham give up two direct passes, one that turned into a direct goal, the other a near miss. Add to the list Martin Marincin, who’s had two in this series against Grand Rapids alone that were ugly giveaways where you wondered whether or not he saw the offensive forecheck coming or not. He’s been fortunate to not be solely responsible for a goal, but he’s been close. But we all know that puck possession is more than good passing versus bad passing it’s also the quality of shots and chances. I’ve not measured those in this series, but in the last two games the shots have been high, but the events around them are terrible. That leads me to my next point.
Todd Nelson, and everyone else wearing a baby Oilers thread, loves to use the goofy mantra of “pucks on net” as in “we need more of them”. Although that might be true, the Barons have long outshot their opponents this season, yet have had varying degrees of success. We are watching a team take a ton of shots in the postseason, but lately those shots have been of a poor quality. Not all of them, but enough to tip the scales in the wrong direction. So what’s happened to cause this? A better GR team, for starters, that now includes Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson who are sensational with puck ownership. This has extended into the game of Tomas Tatar, who’s roared back to life, and the third and fourth lines of the Griffins. When you get headstrong at the top, the trickle down effect is noticeable as well. This has forced OKC Barons defenders, by in large, to not ease into the play offensively. That offensive ingredient missing, the good guys have found less creativity and fewer options on offense.
Listen, Yann’s been really good, but Petr Mrazek just played two of his best games of the postseason on back-to-back nights. When you get incredibly lucky and find a goaltender on a hot streak in the playoffs, it’s hard to break him. Yes more shots are needed, but he’s young, and needs to be reminded of it (goofy overtone, I know). Simply put, let Hartikainen dance on his doorstep. Let Josh Green linger in his back pocket. Allow Toni Rajala to hit him from weird angles. That’s easier said than done, but the risk of pressing into the opposition’s goaltender is worth the pay-day. With no wiggle room at this point, the Barons can afford to get extra chancy.
The power play is just plain awful for Oklahoma City. No well-rounded movement, no skill, no creativity – in all, they play better at five on five, and look utterly confused with a man advantage. This is a team that is 0/15 in the last three games, and 1/21 in the (thus far) five game series. 9/64 is the postseason tally, and that’s far and away the worst in the league. That’s just terrible. Fix this, and you might fix the team.
You look at the lineup and the list of scratches, and quickly realize you have the best team available to you right now. Hordichuk in for Eager? No way. Shuffle defensemen? Not a chance. So what you’re left with is a glimmer of hope that Anton Lander returns (out of protective brace; skating with the team) to center a second line, kill penalties, help on the power play, and maybe add a dash of turning-of-the-corner for an OKC team with zero momentum. One concern is this, Green-CVV-Pitlick have had a brutal time trying to lean on the Griffins new fangled top line. They’ve got to be better if there’s any chance of the Barons winning two in a row. They just have to.
Game six is tonight (Tuesday) in Grand Rapids. The Griffs are up 3-2 in the best of seven series, and the Barons are going to really have to pedal hard to prove they belong in the Cup Finals. Those games, by the way, will begin Saturday. No rest for the weary, apparently.