by Tyler King
It won’t be a waltz, that’s for sure.
The Oil Barons made short work of Drayton Valley last year in a brief 3-game opening playoff round, but there are few who expect this year’s opening round matchup to be anything other than a spectacular battle between two evenly matched hockey teams.
The MOB split its final two games of the regular season this past weekend to cap off the year at 31-23-6, fourth place in the AJHL North and thus matched up with the #5 ranked Sherwood Park Crusaders.
It will be only the fifth time in league history that the Oil Barons and Crusaders have met in the post-season.
In 1986, it was a second round matchup where the Crusaders came out on top 4 games to 1. In 1990’s first round, the Cru swept the MOB in four straight. But the tide turned in 1994 when the Barons upset the 2nd-place Crusaders in a 6-game series. Nearly twenty years later, the teams met up in a 2012 second round that was won by the MOB in five games.
The best-of-five first round format helps to diminish the home ice advantage that the Barons have. If the Crusaders can upset the Barons on Thursday or Friday, then the Oil Barons must win one of the two games in Sherwood Park to avoid early elimination, unlike in a seven game series.
We saw both Lloydminster and Spruce Grove rebound from 3-1 series deficits against the Barons last year to force decisive seventh games; the Barons won’t have that luxury if they fall behind by that margin.
But winning in Sherwood Park has been one of the most difficult tasks of this 2014-15 season. Whether it’s the odd square-ish corners in the rink, the ice, the cramped dressing rooms, or something more mystical, the Barons have had more trouble at the Sherwood Park Arena than anywhere else this season.
Scoring just one goal in three games there this season, the Barons fell 3-0 back in mid-November, 2-1 in mid-January, and 5-0 on January 31st.
Counterbalancing that however was a dominant home portion of the season series for the Barons, who dispatched the Crusaders 4-2 in early November, and then 6-3 and 2-0 in back-to-back games in mid-December.
The wild card for the Crusaders is the health of all-star goaltender Tommy Nixon, who despite missing the majority of the season due to injury was still nominated for the AJHL’s Top Goaltender award. If Nixon is able to return, the Crusaders immediately give themselves a significantly better chance to win.
But backup Zac Klassen has firmly established himself as a legitimate threat to Barons scoring, particularly in Sherwood Park, and will be no easy nut to crack.
On the Oil Barons’ side, besides their having some of the league’s top weapons in Jetlan Houcher, Mitch Vanderlaan, Trent Lofthouse, and others, or one of its best goaltenders in Zach Fortin, is that special teams have surged their way into the playoffs.
In the final ten games of the season, the Barons’ power play operated at 21.9% while the penalty kill recorded a spectacular 92.3% efficiency rating. This bodes extremely well for the Barons as they head into the sudden death portion of the schedule.
Perhaps their biggest obstacle will be mental. Because the Oil Barons are hosting the Western Canada Cup this season, they automatically have a berth in the tournament that will send two or three teams to the Royal Bank Cup national championship. As a result, losing in these AJHL playoffs will not end their season, regardless of how far they get.
Pride in their logo will have to be the driving force to ensure that the “host mentality” does not disrupt the potential for a deep and entertaining playoff run.
After all, we all know this team has the talent to provide exactly that.
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