Barons begin to surge on harrowing road trip

By Tyler King

The greatest high – beating the Brooks Bandits in Brooks in the regular season for the first time in more than seven years.

The greatest low – sliding off the Trans-Canada Highway and crashing into the snowy ditch.

It was a weekend of ups and downs for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons on their final three-game road trip of the 2014-15 season.

After a 5-1 loss in Okotoks on Friday night, the team seem primed for another slump. As circumstances begin to turn against the team, its resilience began to surface, resulting in two of the most impressive results of this entire season.

On Saturday, the Barons came back from two separate 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to tie the former national champion Bandits 2-2 after the second period had come to an end.

In the third, despite being heavily outchanced in the opening 40, the Barons seized control, scoring two similar goals from Trent Lofthouse and Kyle Star to pad a 4-2 lead, before Adam Durkee iced the result with an empty net goal late in the game.

Lofthouse put together a 2-goal performance while goaltender Zach Fortin had perhaps his best start as a Baron, stopping 37 of 39 shots and making some highlight reel saves at that.

As the bus departed Brooks, the team was jubilant; that is, until the bus began to move sideways on the Trans-Canada Highway, eventually sliding off the right shoulder and into the snow off the road.

Freezing rain in the area had covered the highway in a sheet of ice; the Calgary Mustangs bus slid off the highway within minutes of the Oil Barons’ bus doing the same; they were on their way back from a game in Drumheller.

The Barons’ spectacular bus driver managed to inch the bus out of the ditch after a long-awaited gravel truck finally passed by to add some traction. Crawling along at a safe and slow pace, the bus had to pull over again before even getting to Strathmore, when the road again turned into a skating rink and the bus began to slide.

Finally, after hours of waiting, and a much-needed rest in Strathmore, the bus pulled into the MOB’s hotel at 3am. The team would need to leave at 11:30am for a 2pm game in Calgary against the Canucks.

Fatigue would have been the easiest excuse for the Barons in a game against a Calgary team that has been mired in the bottom rung of the AJHL standings ladder for several years. But the exhausted MOB, playing one skater short due to star Mitch Vanderlaan’s departure for Team Canada West selection camp for the World Junior A Challenge event, toughed out one of its gutsiest efforts of the year. Adam Durkee and Kyle Star gave the MOB a 2-1 lead, and captain Jetlan Houcher put it to bed with an empty net goal as Fortin recorded his second consecutive win.

Adding in Fortin’s Tuesday night win at home over Bonnyville, the goaltender went 3-0 with a 1.67 goals against average and .952 save percentage; so impressive that he was named the AJHL’s Player of the Week.

“How do you single out one guy when we played nine forwards?” asked head coach Curtis Hunt rhetorically after being asked about Durkee’s multi-point night. “We could take about young Cole Davis, an affiliate player, who took valuable minutes all the way through the game, [Jackson] McKinstry played left wing, right wing, centre, throughout the game.”

“We managed the ice time of that top line [Durkee, Houcher, Star]; we got them off the power play, we let them play mostly in the offensive zone, to their strengths, and they certainly showed you why they can be as dangerous as anybody in the league.”

The team has recently been buoyed by the news that former leading scorer Luc Lalor is returning to the MOB after starting the season with Green Bay of the United States Hockey League. With Zach Fortin starting to surge as a top-tier AJHL goalie, the solidification of the team’s defensive corps, and this growing forward depth, the MOB are slowly but surely beginning to better resemble a well-constructed and competitive Western Canada Cup host.

But that said, there’s still lots of hockey left to play.

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