By Tyler King
It wasn’t exactly the dominant road performance fans had hoped for after a 3-1 start to 2015 for the Oil Barons. With just a 2-game trip to start off the year’s away schedule, against two teams in Sherwood Park and Bonnyville against whom the MOB was 7-1 combined, it looked like a spectacular opportunity to overtake the Lloydminster Bobcats for second place in the AJHL’s North division.
Instead, following a 2-1 loss in Sherwood Park and 6-3 defeat in Bonnyville, the Barons fell below the .500 mark on the road, and dropped 4 points back of the Bobcats.
“We never shot pucks at the goaltender tonight,” said an exasperated head coach Curtis Hunt after the opening game of the trip, where an opening minute goal by Jetlan Houcher would be the only MOB tally of the contest. “22 shots? Come on. 22 perimeter shots. If we’re going to play a light game with butterfly nets and skipping ropes, it’s going to be a real long break for us.”
For Hunt, the issue was not systemic, nor was it execution-related. Instead, it recalled a common theme he espoused during the team’s mid-Autumn struggles; that of the team’s mental approach.
“Our guys have got to change the mentality of how we play,” he said. “We wanted to play a light game in a tough building. We talked about before the game tonight; it was going to be a playoff-like game, it always is against these guys, and you’ve got to match that work ethic, you’ve got to match that desperation, and you’ve got to match that compete level.”
The following night, the Barons appeared to do all of that in a spectacular first period against Bonnyville. Early on, Mitch Vanderlaan opened the scoring, and though the team only held a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes, it dominated the scoring chance department and appeared to be firmly in control of the game.
That is, until the first intermission ended.
The Barons went on to allow six consecutive goals; three in the second, and three in the third, en route to the 6-3 loss. Most crushing of all were two goals in the opening minute of the final frame.
Assistant coach Ryan Allen wasn’t pushing the panic button after the team’s first loss to the Pontiacs of the year, though.
“Just two breakdowns, really,” he replied when asked to pinpoint the cause of the collapse. “One, we got roasted, and the other, our goaltender misplayed the puck, and they capitalized on two of our mistakes.”
But he agreed that the three early third period goals – which in total came in a span of just over 3 minutes – were the dagger.
“That first one, we don’t block a shot,” he explained – the opening goal having come on a long shot from the blue line. “The second two [both breakaway goals], we were totally out to lunch; just defensive breakdowns. But, again, they capitalized on our mistakes.”
The former MOB alternate captain noted that the team wasn’t out of it; it just didn’t have the finish to make the game close again.
“On the flipside, we had our chances,” Allen emphasized. “That game finished 6-3, and in the third period alone, [Austin] Holmes had a two-on-one, [Landon] Welykolowa had a shot, [Jetlan] Houcher had a chance, [Logan] Franz, [Wil] Tomchuk had a rebound; so at the end of the day, they capitalized more.”
“We liked our determination in the third period; we didn’t go away when it was 6-1, and even frankly when it was 6-3,” he added. “Had we even stopped or allowed 1 or 2 goals, that game is 5-3, and if we’d gotten one more of those chances it’s 5-4 with four minutes left.”
The team has the benefit of a lighter schedule to end the month with no mid-week games. However, the task will be tough this coming weekend with two games against top-tier South division teams in Okotoks and Drumheller. The Oilers are 2-0 against the MOB this year, while the Dragons came back from a late deficit to down the MOB in extra time when they met in Drumheller.
With time running short, every game will begin to take on extra importance for a squad that has a major task ahead of itself with the Western Canada Cup barely three months away.
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By Tyler King