The AHL announces 2015-16 division alignment

With only one game on the American Hockey League schedule tonight, the AHL added news to the schedule as well as they announced the divisional alignment for the 2015-16 season. We already knew that the California teams would be a part of a new Pacific Division, but we weren’t quite sure what the makeup of it would be. Today, we got to find out.

A six-division league for the past few seasons, the biggest change now has the league returning to a four-division set-up. Gone are the West, East, Northeast, and Midwest divisions as they get replaced by the Pacific and Central divisions. The North division moves to the Eastern Conference and joins the Atlantic division.

As Manchester, Norfolk, and Worcester move to the West, the league moved Rochester, Utica, and Toronto to the East. The other interesting move has San Antonio and Texas joining the California teams in the Pacific Division.

Here’s how it now breaks down:

Atlantic Division: Bridgeport, Hartford, Hershey, Lehigh Valley, Portland, Providence, Springfield, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

North Division: Albany, Binghamton, Rochester, St. John’s, Syracuse, Toronto, Utica.

Central Division: Charlotte, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Iowa, Lake Erie, Manitoba, Milwaukee, Rockford.

Pacific Division: Bakersfield, Ontario, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose, Stockton, Texas.

With the rumors of the Pacific Division only playing 68 games next season, it’ll be interesting to see if Texas and San Antonio are included or if it will apply to the entire league. Interesting offseason on the way.

Matt Climie Heads Overseas

A goaltender that the Oklahoma City Barons have faced multiple times over the last five seasons will be pulling up his goalposts and heading to Germany next season. Announced today on YouTube and their website, the Straubing Tigers of the German DEL have signed Climie to a contract.

The 32-year old Climie began his career in the Dallas Stars organization, spending a couple seasons between the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and the Iowa/Texas Stars (and even a playoff run with the Houston Aeros when Dallas was between AHL affiliates in 2008-09).

In 2010-11, Climie moved just a few hours south when he made the jump to join the then-Phoenix Coyotes organization, affiliated with the San Antonio Rampage. After one season there, Climie signed with Vancouver, joining the Chicago Wolves. When Vancouver left the Chicago affiliation, Climie stayed, signing AHL contracts to stay with the Wolves.

This season, Climie became the Chicago Wolves all-time leader in wins by a goaltender, passing Kari Lehtonen. Climie also holds the record for most wins in a single season for the Rampage.

Climie has played in 249 regular season games in the AHL, posting a career 2.57 goals against and a .914 saves percentage. Climie has also earned 15 shutouts throughout his seven years in the American Hockey League.

In Straubing, Climie replaces another former AHLer in Jason Bacashihua as he looks to take over the Tigers number one goaltender slot.

Good luck, Matt!

Oklahoma City Suffers Through Game 3 Loss

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?!

“We’re not going to change anything” – Utica’s Travis Green

Photo via Utica Comets. All rights reserved. 

The Barons and Comets head to Oklahoma City for a three game set after two really sturdy, strong, and evenly matched games in Utica. The first was an epic four overtime battle where Curtis Hamilton again scored past the regulation time stamp. The second favored Grenier in an early overtime game winner. Both were defensive battles from the blue-line, and most certainly from inside the net. The offense was stout shooting the puck with consistency, but perhaps with not enough ferocity. In all, only six goals have been scored, parts of eleven periods have been played. What a postseason.

Yet both teams have been extremely lucky, and by lucky I mean Richard Bachman and Jacob Markstrom. They are really really sharp these days, and have bailed out their teams on a nightly basis. That can’t continue, surely it can’t, so some things will need to be tweaked. Game plans might need adjusting. And the teams need to show some magical wrinkles that could separate them from their opponents.

But it won’t be Utica making changes.

Per the Utica Observer-Dispatch, comments from head coach, Travis Green:

“We’re not going to change anything,” he said. “We’re confident going on the road. We have to get one win in Oklahoma. All we have to do is when the next game. There is nothing special.”

So Coach Green strikes first. His confidence in his team has been what has kept the rest of the Western Conference at bay for much of the final moments of the regular season. They won’t mess with the formula (unless this is a ruse designed to get the Barons to budge on their lineup), and I think that might be a smart move knowing the weapons they have at their disposal.

Your move, Gerry Fleming.

Oklahoma City & Utica Play To Overtime Again, Grenier Wins It For Comets

Photo via Utica Comets. All rights reserved. 

After last night’s seven period barn burner in Utica, the Barons and Comets revved the engines for round two less than 24 hours later. Curtis Hamilton became the king of wishful thinking, and defeated the Comets in game one with a major (and I do mean major) assist to Richard Bachman.

With the game going deep, lineup changes were expected. They were few for Utica, but non-existent for the Barons as the away team iced an identical lineup to that on Thursday night. Noticeably absent from the Utica lineup was Darren Archibald, who was injured in game one. Archibald was an incredible workhorse for the Comets the night before, and his absence would be felt.

The game would again be a defensive battle from the goal out. Penalty killing was good despite penalties being few. Bachman and Markstrom duked it out again with both facing 30+ shots a piece. In all, it was nearly a carbon copy of the night before except the teams looked a bit gassed from the get go.

Connor Jones would opening the scoring nearly nine minutes into the game with assist to brother Kellen and sort-of-brother (in distant appearance only) Matt Ford. It seemed that the Barons would be ready to test Markstrom often.

Nearly a period and a half later the Utica Comets would tie the game. Adam Clendening, scoring his third of the postseason, would pot the games tying goal. Bachman had been beat, but it wasn’t entirely his fault.

The Barons sort of cooled off late in the game, and did their best to help tighten up defensively. It paid off, but earned another overtime appearance.

Ryan Hamilton would hold up a Utica player in the final seconds of regulation to give the Comets a power play to start the overtime frame. It was a smart penalty, in some regards, because it saved a potentially hostile scoring chance against Bachman.

As we all prepped our pajamas for another long haul of overtime, Alexandre Grenier scored the game winner a minute after the Barons killed off the Hamilton penalty. The game would end quickly this time around.

Utica would tie the series on Friday night, sending the two teams back to Oklahoma City for three straight starting Monday night.

Oklahoma City & Utica Play Historic Game One

Photo via Utica Comets

It took seven periods, over 126 shots, but only three goals to end game one of the Western Conference semifinal between the Oklahoma City Barons and Utica Comets on Thursday evening.

The game was going to be an epic defensive battle with the Barons stocking the quiver, and the Comets notoriously stout. But the real showstopper would be the battle between starting goaltenders. Richard Bachman vs. Jacob Markstrom was one for the ages as both stopped 60+ goals with 20 or more of those shots coming past regulation. Remarkable.

Seventeen minutes into the game the Utica Comets would score the games opening goal after some feisty back-and-forth moments from both squads. It was a curious goal, in hindsight, because it was only shot number six that Bachman had faced. The next fifty or so he would stop.

The Barons were running red hot, yet safely protecting their zone, when the first period came to an end. Things would really fire on all cylinders past the second period.

Early in the second period, Kellen Jones would score his second post season goal on a fabulous breakaway of sorts. He would beat Markstrom, and the teams would be even after 22 minutes of hockey.

From that point forward the Barons and Comets would each suffer a pair of penalties, but neither team was willing to budge on the PK or breakout on the PP.

Regulation would wind down with the teams steadying themselves, and both goaltenders hunkering down.

Through three scoreless overtime periods neither team was able to score even on three power play opportunities for the home team and two for the away team. The goaltenders, playing out of their minds, would enter the fourth overtime period, having played 120 minutes of hockey, hoping for a victory.

Curtis Hamilton, on the first shift of overtime, would punch in his first point of the AHL postseason. It caught Markstrom off guard, and it caused me to soil my fruit of the looms.

The Oklahoma City Barons would defeat the Utica Comets in game one as the puck finally snuck through the arm of Jacob Markstrom after three overtimes, plus a few seconds. The historic four overtimes would be one for the record books.

Braden Christoffer Signs Contract With OKC Ba…Er, Bakersfield Condors

Per the Regina Leader-Post sports department, and author Greg Harder:

Regina Pats captain Braden Christoffer has signed an AHL contract with the top affiliate of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, according to a source.

An undrafted free agent, Christoffer agreed to a one-year deal with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons, who are slated to move to Bakersfield, Calif., next season. The 20-year-old winger is expected to attend Edmonton’s summer prospects camp as well as joining the NHL club at a rookie tournament in Penticton, B.C., in the fall.

Christoffer exhausted his WHL eligibility with the Pats this season, recording career highs 26 goals, 59 points and 147 penalty minutes while playing all 72 regular-season games. The native of Sherwood Park, Alta., added two goals and eight points in nine playoff games.

Christoffer’s first pro experience came last fall when he was invited to rookie camp by the NHL’s Washington Capitals.

I won’t comment specifically on Christoffer, but rather on the general signing of this AHL player. This is a Craig MacTavish like move – signing a player to a minor league deal for a single year before the current season ends – but it is probably a signing made without MacT’s expertise. More on that later.

By in large AHL contracted players are older, established fellas. Yet the shift in the last two seasons on the Oilers farm has been favoring the signing of guys that might mean something beyond a rental or vet stability presence. This is certainly a case of signing a player that might be of good use well beyond the AHL, and a year to showcase those talents might urge said player to earn your attention. Interesting and smart way to approach the farm.

Is this a theme for Peter Chiarelli as well? You Boston Bruins fans of the world let me know. Regardless, it further legitimizes the importance of the farm team well beyond just wins vs. losses. It is about building something special, and building into the players at multiple levels.

This will be the first AHL Bakersfield Condors contracted player, and that is huge news for the future AHL Oilers landing spot.

Huge thanks to the Leader-Post for the article, and to Eric Rodgers for bringing it to my attention

Previous Meetings: Utica & Oklahoma City Do The “Splits”

Photo by Steven Christy

Game #1 – December 2nd, 2014
Utica Comets 0 – Oklahoma City Barons 1 (OT)

The Comets stumbled into the Cox Center in early December while the Barons were on an eight game tear through the American Hockey League. Knowing that they would only face the Comets one other time during the regular season, OKC would play really good defensive minutes against a team with skill. Richard Bachman would stop all 34 shots for the shutout, and Todd Nelson would be showcasing his talents before assuming the role of the Edmonton Oilers interim head coach (replacing Dallas Eakins).

It took nearly 64:00 scoreless minutes for Jason Williams to score his eighth goal of the season with a whale of an assist from the suddenly-good Curtis Hamilton.

The Barons power play went 0/2, but their penalty killing was superb (in three chances). A late game trip by David Musil and a subsequent scrap with Brendan Guance 7:16 into the third period nearly undid the perfect game for Richard Bachman. Yet the defense steadied themselves, and the penalty kill worked like a charm.

Joacim Eriksson played remarkably well stopping 34 of 35 shots for the Utica Comets.

Game #2 – March 27th, 2015
Oklahoma City Barons 2 – Utica Comets 4

The first game was low-scoring, goaltender-leaning. The second game was the complete opposite. Laurent Brossoit was in net while Richard Bachman played back up with the Oilers, and Joacim Eriksson made his second appearance against the Barons.

This game was over mid-way through the second period as Utica scored four straight against a soggy Barons squad. Yet the tall tale in this outing was about one thing – penalties. Eleven different roughing calls, three players awarded ten minute game misconducts (including C.J. Ludwig and Travis Ewanyk), and 77 penalty minutes in total. It was a bruiser of a hockey game that got wildly out of hand halfway through the game.

Four different Comets scored in a span of less than twenty minutes of game time, all of them at full strength. It was not a good showing for the Barons nor for Laurent Brossoit who was struggling in the wave of badness that became a team problem through the month of April.

Jason Williams would score his 18th goal of the season after Darren Archibald was whistled for a check to the head and issued a game misconduct. The Williams power play goal breathed a bit of life into the Barons sails as the second period came to a close.

Mitch Moroz would chip away at the Utica lead by scoring only his fourth goal of the season with an assist to Jackson Houck (his only point in seven games) and Jordan Oesterle.

The team was buried by the brutish nature of the game, and their inability to “shake off the problems” bit them in the end. And so the two parted ways.

In Conclusion

The two games couldn’t have been more incredibly different, and quite honestly, the two games represent two completely different seasons within a season for both squads.

Goaltending changes, defensive movement, recalled players, injuries, coaching changes, etc. all played a huge part in the victories or defeats in both cases.

This is the danger of facing unfamiliar teams in the postseason – which version are we gonna get?

For Oklahoma City the doldrums of their March to April swing have given way to some really sound play in the first round. I continue to suggest they got lucky (in many cases), and that they caught a Rampage team on a downhill slide. Utica has slow-burned their way towards being one of the best in the West (actually, the best mathematically speaking), and they are probably more like the Game #2 team than the Game #1 team.

For Utica, they showed they have the guts, the goaltending, and the gall to put a hurt on a team like the Oklahoma City Barons. Markstrom and Eriksson are every bit the dandy that Bachman and Brossoit have been (probably moreso), but the Comets can be beat. It just hasn’t happened often.

We will break down the two squads in the coming days. Stay tuned.

Jackson Houck & Chase Schaber Released From Contracts

Three days ago, on May 2nd, it appears that Jackson Houck and Chase Schaber were released from their PTO contracts. No official announcement was made by the Edmonton Oilers or by the Oklahoma City Barons.

Houck, an Edmonton Oilers draft pick, played in seven AHL games with an assist to his credit. Schaber, a Bakersfield call-up, played in thirteen games scoring once.

Here is the official transaction via theAHL.com:

houck-schaber

Tyler Bunz Returns To Oklahoma City

Photo by Steven Christy

On April 18th, as the AHL regular season came to an end, Tyler Bunz gave us his farewells via his twitter account. Bunz, a player that is easy to root for, has had a wild two seasons both in terms of injury (horrific throat incident) and placement (played 13 games with ECHL Bakersfield Condors, 17 games with ECHL Wichita Thunder, 7 with the Oklahoma City Barons, and 1 with the Edmonton Oilers). The rollercoaster ride has been wild and woolly for the 23 year old tender from St. Albert.

His farewell was kind-hearted, which further explains why he is easy to root for. He said:

We tweeted our appreciation in return. And it seemed that we would no longer get the opportunity to see Bunz play in Oklahoma City again. Until…

Apparently Tyler Bunz is back in the OKC fold. Richard Bachman, Laurent Brossoit, and Ty Rimmer have been the three postseason goaltenders listed on the official team roster. Rimmer has yet to play a minute, but is no doubt a part of the practice rotation. With the return of Tyler Bunz who have to wonder whom might be injured or what might be happening with Rimmer. I won’t speculate any further. Officially – as of 11:00am on May 5th – the OKC Barons have four official goaltenders. That is never a bad thing, really it isn’t.