Barons back on track

By Tyler King

It was an unfamiliar sight to see the Fort McMurray Oil Barons skate off the ice without another point in the standings. Downed 2-0 by the defending national champion Brooks Bandits last Friday night, it remained to be seen whether this was the start of a lengthy slump, or just a bump along the road in an otherwise dominant season for the MOB.

The following night in Okotoks didn’t settle too much, as a slow start saw the Barons down 2-0, then 3-1, before some switch flicked on the team’s bench that got them right back into form. Two goals in the latter two periods, including a clutch third-period tying goal by captain Jetlan Houcher, sent the game to overtime, where a four-minute high sticking penalty to Houcher seemed to spell an early end for the team. But a tenacious three minutes and ten seconds of penalty kill, although it resulted in the Oilers’ eventual winning goal, demonstrated a fantastic gutsy effort that saw head coach Gord Thibodeau more optimistic afterwards than he had been after some of the team’s record-setting wins this year.

It all led to a Sunday evening affair in Calgary against the Mustangs. Already missing forwards Kevin Miller and Mitchell Vanderlaan, as well as defenceman Brett McNeil, due to Team Canada West selection camp for the World Junior A Challenge, the team had forward Colten Meaver added to the injury list with a shoulder strain, reducing their available forwards to just 9 of the usual 12.

Despite that, it was pure domination by a team that got back to its number-one nationally ranked form. They outshot the Mustangs 11-6 in the first, but it wasn’t until the final shot of the frame, a Brennan Saulnier breakaway backhander, that they finally were rewarded with a goal.

“The biggest thing we’ve found so far with Brennan is just, don’t give him an empty net, because he struggles at putting those in,” joked Barons head coach Gord Thibodeau, referring to earlier chances Saulnier had generated on the weekend, “but he did a great job again – he had two glorious chances before he buried the breakaway. It’s good to see. I think for him it’s just a weight off his shoulders.”

Then, it was time for the captain Houcher to shine again. Just over a minute into the second, he converted on the first shift of a MOB powerplay when his rocket of a one-timer from the slot found the top-right corner of the Mustang net.

Just 42 seconds later, Houcher did it again, converting a cross-crease pass from linemate Hayden Dawes for another one-time goal.

I’d gotten a few messages over the week from AJHL observers surprised that Houcher’s name kept coming up on the scoresheet. This wasn’t because people were surprised he was scoring – that’s a given. It was because they were surprised he wasn’t also invited to Team Canada West camp.

“We felt badly for Jetlan also; we felt that he should’ve gotten an invite,” said Thibodeau. “But sometimes people fall in love with skating and speed and they forget that it’s the end result that matters, and when a kid continues to score, there’s a reason why; he’s smart enough to put himself in position. The kid has scored at every level that he’s played at, so it’s nice to see him doing that, and I’m hoping that schools are going to take notice of that.”

I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Team Canada West’s head coach is also bench boss of the Spruce Grove Saints.

Almost lost in the shuffle again was a perfect 27-save shutout performance by backup goalie Jesse Gordichuk, his second official clean sheet of his career.

Interestingly, if he hadn’t had a phantom goal called against him (which never crossed the goal line) at home on October 19th against Drumheller, it would have been Gordichuk’s third consecutive shutout – tying the league record.

Gordichuk hasn’t allowed an actual goal in more than 198 minutes of play – which, if the phantom goal hadn’t been called, would be the second-longest such streak in AJHL history.

“He just doesn’t give up a lot of rebounds, he plays big in the net; the one thing with Jesse is, he’s competing on pucks, he’s fighting through screens,” said Thibodeau. “I think he’s a goaltender that’s got a lot of promise and obviously it’s tough to keep a shutout string going, but he’s battling, and he’s trying to find ways to do that every night; let’s hope it continues for quite a while.”

As though the schedule for the MOB couldn’t get quirkier – the team has 11 days off before returning home November 8th to take on Olds.

“It’s been a tough 21 games,” said Thibodeau. “We want to get some rest, we’re going to have a short week at practice, probably three days at practice, and then the boys will have three full days off where they’ll get to go home and get to see their families a little bit – we’ll regroup in a week’s time and get back to work, and get ourselves prepared.”