By Tyler King
Pre-season success in the AJHL is never, under any circumstances, a harbinger of regular season results.
Just look at the Calgary Canucks, who had a great pre-season last year before limping their way to a last-place finish.
Or even the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, who lost all of their final three games at a pre-season tournament in Okotoks before rhyming off a record-setting win streak to start the regular schedule.
It was a better result for the MOB in Okotoks this year. After a disastrous 5-1 loss to the hometown Oilers in Game 1 on a Friday night, where the Barons allowed nearly 50 shots and didn’t record 15 of their own, the team responded with a gutsy comeback against the Brooks Bandits, rebounding from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to take the game 5-4.
They capped off the weekend with a 1-0 loss to the Drumheller Dragons that may have been their best performance of the exhibition schedule. For the first time in the pre-season, they outshot their opponent, and rhymed off a 7-0 shot lead to open the third period. Some highlight reel saves from Dragons veteran goalie Curtis Skip kept it from being a casual McMurray win.
“To me, in all areas of our game, we got better every day,” said head coach Curtis Hunt. “I really liked where we generated our offence from, [and] I liked how we had five guys back all night. For the most part, real positive finish.”
In particular, Hunt singled out his team’s defensive zone work, where rookie goalie Michael Barabash was able to make 25 saves that, for the most part, came from the sides of his zone, and didn’t result in second-chance opportunities for Drumheller.
“Our guys did a great job of either boxing out or clearing rebounds into quiet, smart areas, and then I thought we were out of the zone quick, so we didn’t give up much for sustained pressure,” the coach observed.
“I give our veteran guys full marks, because those are the guys that we put a lot of pressure on to show the young guys,” he added.
Hunt was also open to admitting that the novelty of his coaching staff and coaching style will require continuing adjustment that may prove an early test for his team.
“Let’s face it,” Hunt said. “All of these other teams have a coach and veterans that understand what and how they play. Our group doesn’t. They’re still a little uneasy about where they’re at and understanding how we want to play.”
But despite that challenge, the coach was impressed with the team’s development into a significantly coordinated offensive unit.
“If you look at where we tracked our shots from, we peppered them from the inside of the ice,” Hunt said. “We could do a better job of getting to second pucks; there were some opportunities we had where we missed the net. But, all in all, when we stop getting chances is when we start to worry, and we didn’t stop getting chances.”
Attention now turns to the team’s home opener against the Drayton Valley Thunder this Friday night at 8 PM at the Casman Centre, the first in a long 60-game journey for this unusually young MOB team.
“The biggest thing we want to do as a group is make sure we get our fans into this game right away, as early as possible,” said Hunt. “We just want to have that team game. I always say five in the picture; that reflects when you’re watching the video, how it moves from zone to zone, and that’s the way we want to play, with five in the picture, which means we have a great support game.”
If the team continues to progress on the upward path that saw them through this 2014 pre-season, the sky’s the limit for the Oil Barons in the regular season.
But as we established off the top – once the games start counting for points in the standings, all bets are off.
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