Photo by Steven Christy
Games one and two felt eerily similar between the Oklahoma City Barons and the Utica Comets. You can imagine, in the second round of the playoffs, that the stakes would get higher, the teams much stronger, and the fight more uncontrollable. And it has been. Yet the separation between the teams is starting to force a wedge between our expectations and the reality of both squads. Utica continues to be defensively dominate while the Barons struggle to contain the rush up ice. Utica is relentless and crafty in front of the stingy Richard Bachman, and the OKC blueline makes simple mistakes it shouldn’t at the worst possible moments. Game three feels like a microcosm of the series thus far, and unfortunately Utica feels / seems / appears to be the better squad. Time will tell.
With eleven seconds remaining in the game the Barons feverishly pelted Jacob Markstrom with shots. Three sound chances in those eleven seconds earned them nothing in return. The puck was unsteady in the passing lanes. The Comets kept the play along the boards. When the momentum did shift towards the center of the ice, the Utica blue line was claustrophobic in trapping the puck. It was methodical in nature, and boy was is it a thing to behold even if I cheer for the home team.
That final eleven seconds of play was a demonstration of what took place in the nearly sixty minutes of ice hockey that preceded it.
The game began with identical lineups to that of game two. Neither Gerry Fleming nor Travis Green were willing to budge even an iota.
In the first ninety seconds, the normally sturdy Brandon Davidson had a monster gaff directly in front of Richard Bachman, and Utica would take advantage. Centerman Alex Friesen would score his first of the 2015 post season, but more importantly put his team up early by a single goal. Eleven and a half minutes later the hero of game two’s overtime, Alexandre Grenier would score to put Utica up by two goals before the first twenty was even in the books.
The Barons seemed a bit gobsmacked by the early, two-goal lead. They would really have to pressure the puck, rely on Bachman to steal some moments, and hopefully not give up too much ice in the process.
Andrew Miller would beat Markstrom high, glove side to put the Barons within one. It was a tricky shot that few have accomplished against the Utica goaltender. But I think Miller found a crack in the armor just a bit, and would spend the remainder of the game trying to find that sweet spot again.
Minor penalties were a bit heavier in the first and second periods than they had been in the two previous games. It was a direct result of some sideways play by both teams, and perhaps some nitpicking by the zebra team. Regardless, the Barons would be down two goals to one by the time we reached the forty minute mark.
The third period would be interesting as Josh Winquist would score to the left of Markstrom on a centering pass by Andrew Miller that nearly touched the toes of the Utica tender. The game tied at two goals – there was much rejoicing from the faithful few who showed up to a Monday evening game in May. Undone by a miserable defensive series (yes, again), Mike Zalewski would squelch the momentum for Oklahoma City as the visiting team would take a one goal lead early in the third period.
The next fifteen minutes of play were surgical by the Utica Comets. They would allow only three or four legit scoring chances for OKC, and their prevent formation would remain in tact. They would be tested, but never fully broken by the Barons forward group despite an onslaught with only a few seconds remaining.
In the end the Barons would be defeated by the Utica Comets, 3-2, and for once in the series the game wouldn’t be decided by an overtime, 2-1 fate.
The short story is that Travis Green isn’t going to make changes to his lineup as long as they continue to win. I wouldn’t. But the times they were a changin’ for Gerry Fleming as early as the second period of game two despite the additional play in overtime. There comes a point, as mentioned above, in every series where a team emerges as the “better” squad. That happened a game a go, and the assumption was that Fleming felt this and would change accordingly. He didn’t, and we now understand why those changes should have taken place. Hindsight is always 20/20, but foresight can be too. A deeper look at what transpired in game two, and certainly game three, dictates a few changes that will need to be made.
For the record, Bachman is still good even when he isn’t facing sixty shots. Don’t pull him just yet (although he looked a bit “faded” at times in game three). Offensive skill is a big problem, and currently the Barons have a bit of it, but perhaps not enough. Greg Chase is a player that might make a difference. Darnell Nurse might add some interesting speed and play-insertion to the squad. But all of these things feel like tiny band aids on a larger problem.
In the end I expect changes to be made. If not, things might get dicey. But I’m willing to wait, see what Fleming decides to do, and then cast judgement after game four. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point. The team just needs to win. Please?!