by Tyler King
Even when this team was at its worst, in the doldrums of October or the slump of early February, the pessimism among MOB fans never got to the point where a first-round exit was considered probable.
Yet, somehow, a team that shut out the Sherwood Park Crusaders in Game 2 of its best-of-five first round playoff series proceeded to allow 14 goals in 2 games on the road, en route to a shellacking ejection from the AJHL postseason in 4 games.
The Crusaders, who had been the league’s fourth-worst offensive team this year, scored seemingly at will against a MOB team that had been in the top third of the league in defence.
An 8-0 drubbing in Game 3 was the fifth biggest shutout win in AJHL playoff history. The Cru capped it off with a dominant 6-2 win in Game 4 that marked the first time the Oil Barons had lost a playoff series with home ice advantage since 2002.
For head coach Curtis Hunt, frustration was the theme after the early departure.
“It’s like beating a dead horse sometimes. At some point in time you’ve got to figure it out,” said Hunt. “Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. How many shots got blocked from the top? How many shots did we not even take where we just held on, held on, held on, and that gets pretty frustrating when the other team seems to get pucks through. I guess we’ll reflect a little bit and take some time.”
The Barons mustered fewer than 15 shots in the first two periods of Game 4 despite being on the verge of elimination. The power play sputtered while the penalty kill failed to continue to surge after ending the regular season at a more than 90% efficiency rate in the last ten games.
As had been the theme of the worst times of the season for the MOB, odd-man rushes absolutely killed them. Players caught too far down low chasing pucks and failing to corral them sent the Crusaders back on a bevy of 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 opportunities, including a few 3-on-1 rushes, which are never the hallmark of an effective team.
“Just about every shift we’re trying to explain to guys, ‘listen you can’t do that,’ and they go out and they repeat it, it’s been quite frustrating, I’ll be honest with you,” Hunt added.
“Maybe I’ve been too nice of a guy, but we’ve got an opportunity where we get a second season here and we’ve got some work to do, and for some guys it’s going to be a real good opportunity.”
That is the odd reality of this season for the Western Canada Cup host Oil Barons. Despite the early playoff exit, the team remains in contention for a national title.
It will host the champions of BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba from April 25th to May 3rd at the Casman Centre, the one rink where the MOB has played consistently well, with two spots at the RBC Cup national championship on the line.
Not only that, but if the RBC Cup hosts, the Portage Terriers, make the WCC, then they cannot win one of the two RBC berths (as they’re already in the tournament), and three of the five teams in Fort McMurray will make it to the national tourney.
The challenge for the coaching staff will be approaching a month and a half long break for this team that will certainly benefit from rest and recovery from injury, but may struggle to return to game mode in time for the opening match on April 25th.
But despite the utter disappointment of a 4-game playoff exit by a team with far more talent than that result would suggest, the dream of a national title still remains for this team.
That’s junior hockey for you.
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