by Tyler King
With the relatively injury-free season the Fort McMurray Oil Barons have had, it should have been considered inevitable that the injury bug would start to wreak havoc on the team’s success at some point.
After all, this is still a rough game, and no player is immune to the toll of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s 60-game schedule.
With WHL veteran Trent Lofthouse out of the lineup, the Barons lost a point-per-game player who had solidified himself as one of the league’s leading overage players.
Without Mitch Vanderlaan, the Barons lost not only perhaps their best and most consistent overall player, but also an alternate captain whose off-ice impact was considered to be a significant part of the team’s ability to succeed.
As if losing those two wasn’t bad enough, the Barons alternately lost centres Landon Welykholowa and Adam Durkee over the course of this past weekend to varying ailments.
The results were not pretty; a 5-2 loss in Spruce Grove, a 5-0 loss in Sherwood Park, and a 2-1 shootout loss to the Drayton Valley Thunder on Sunday afternoon.
Oddly, the Barons had started off well in all three games. In Spruce Grove, they outshot the Saints. In Sherwood Park, they were tied after the first and controlled the second. Finally, in Drayton Valley, they held the Thunder to just 4 opening period shots, but a hot goalie on the other end robbed them of any more than a late third period tying goal.
“We’ve had that start – it was similar to our games in Sherwood Park and Spruce Grove,” said assistant coach Ryan Allen after Sunday’s game. “It’s not a switch – you can’t decide to turn it up on game three of a road trip and expect to win. We had our chances, we could have had two, three, or four in the first period, but their goalie played well.”
“We blunder a bit in the second, we fall off the map, they push, and we don’t push back after that.”
The second period of that Drayton Valley game saw the MOB allow more than twice as many shots as they had allowed in the first and third periods combined. Some great goaltending by Zach Fortin, who later had to leave the game for precautionary reasons after taking a skate to the helmet from a Thunder forward, helped keep it close.
“For whatever reason, this road trip particularly, we decided to have some bad second periods, some lapses and some lulls, and it was a combination of things,” said Allen. “You can’t pinpoint one thing that went wrong in the second, but we’ll continue to try to fix it as we go forward.”
It was a mixed bag as the Barons did manage to get the one point of a possible six on the road trip. With Bonnyville’s defeat of the Lloydminster Bobcats that same day, the Barons narrowed the gap to 3 points on the second place ‘Cats. With two more games coming up for the MOB against Lloydminster, second is still within reach. But Bonnyville is now just two points back of the Barons, with a game in hand. Sherwood Park is in the same spot, though the Barons have two games in hand on them.
All of a sudden, we have a four-team race for second place in the AJHL North and the convenience of home ice advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
With the Oil Barons now 17-8 in the cozy confines of the Casman Centre and just 9-12-5 away from it, that home ice advantage could be the key to any deep playoff run for this team.
That, and finally getting key players healthy again.
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