Edmonton, AB - The Oklahoma City Barons' post-season quest began as well as anyone could hope. Closing it out with a 5-2 win Tuesday night at the Cox Convention Center, OKC sunk the Houston Aeros by a 3-1 count in the AHL's Western Conference Quarter-Final.
Electing to start on the road, the Barons won both games at the Toyota Center before returning home with a chance to sweep their opponent in Game 3. The Aeros countered with a 1-0 win, but couldn't keep pace in Game 4 as the convincing elimination score vaulted Oklahoma City into the second round for the first time in the team's two-year existence.
"It feels really good. It's a big step for the organization," said Head Coach Todd Nelson over the phone. "It was our goal to simply make the playoffs last year; and while we accomplished that, you always want more and felt as though we came up short (losing a six-game series to the Hamilton Bulldogs).
"We wanted to take the next step and we've done it to this point. Just seeing how the players are growing as a team -- especially for the younger guys who haven't been in this situation before -- is great. The experience they're gaining right now is excellent."
In April 2011, Hamilton won Games 1 and 2. The Barons responded at home, winning Games 3 and 4, but losing a pivotal Game 5 at the Cox Center. Facing elimination in Game 6, OKC's tank ran dry and the series was lost.
While the Barons were the lower seed, the underdog even, it was a winnable set. As such, a sour taste ran through the locker room as the club looked to avenge last year's emotional opening-round defeat with a better outcome this time around.
"Our older guys had been there before," Nelson said, comparing last year's outcome to this past week's Game 3 loss. "We have a good group of players in here. Every one of them, from the youngest guys to the oldest guys, they're good character people. When our team lost Game 3, we didn't have the focus that we needed to put Houston away. But you could sense that early in the morning, throughout the day and during the game (on Tuesday) the guys had that will. You could sense it from everybody. They wanted to win [Game 4].
"Game 3, I could sense it all day. The guys were a bit too loose. We want our guys to be loose, but we have to make sure we have the right mindset, too. I think there was a little complacency within our team. That's a little sign of immaturity, where guys maybe thought it was going to be easy. But what they didn't realize is how hard we worked in Houston and how hard we played to earn those wins. Game 3 certainly wasn't going to be a cakewalk, but we thought it was going to be.
"Until you go through something like that, you don't know what to expect. It's very valuable for a hockey team to get that sense of accomplishment. Our older guys helped our younger guys have that extra sense of urgency and it worked out well for us in Game 4. We scored one goal, Houston came back. We scored a second goal, they came back again. But we stuck with it. It was one of those wins where the guys had to work right to the end, and that's valuable experience."
All season long the Barons' M.O was built on scoring by committee. Ryan Keller led in the team in scoring, posting 21 goals and 49 points in 71 games. Mark Arcobello was the only other to plateau the 40-point barrier, collecting 43 in 73 games.
Up and down the lineup, it's a balanced attack.
Arcobello has continued his run and is leading the Barons in post-season scoring with a 1-4-5 stat line. Perhaps most impressively, Tyler Pitlick has turned a corner -- the 20-year-old rookie notched two goals and two assists vs. Houston and has been on the rise, production-wise, over the past month or so.
"He's been sticking with it," Nelson said of Pitlick. "There were some signs of frustration about a month ago. But we said, 'Stick with it. You're getting opportunities.' The biggest red flag is if a player isn't getting opportunities. If you're not generating chances then something's wrong, but he was generating chances and now he's getting rewarded for it. He scored some big goals for us in that series, too. He got us going in Game 1 and deployed the knockout punch in Game 2 with another big goal.
"Here's a guy that's getting better and better," he added. "He's maturing as a hockey player and that's what we're seeing. He's at a point-per-game pace, that's a tremendous sign for our hockey team. He's doing the things that people expected him to do, and that takes time with some of these young guys. The further we go along in the post-season, he's going to learn more, grow more and it's going to make him a better hockey player."
Ryan Keller, an eight-year pro veteran who won the Calder Cup last season with the Binghamton Senators, has produced at the same rate at Pitlick. Nelson's Barons are so well-balanced (and dangerous) that only two players have yet to record a point in the post-season -- Colten Teubert and Chris VandeVelde, who will in due time.
All things considered, the bench boss is pleased. The series vs. Houston was a microcosm of the team's season, as the Barons' arrow-up development curve continues to highlight growth in a winning environment. When combined and sweetened with depth in all areas, OKC's opponents have little to answer with.
"We're growing as a team," Nelson said. "It's good to see everybody contribute. It's a total team effort and that's the way our team has to play to have success. We can't rely on one line to do it for us; we have to have all 20 guys going. I know it's a cliché, but it's so true with our hockey team. Our scoring is spread around and to be honest, I like it that way. It makes it hard for teams to match up against us -- doesn't matter which line is out there. They all have the ability to score goals and contribute.
"Teams are trying to pre-scout us and if they want matchups with certain guys, it doesn't matter to me. I can put anyone out there and feel good about it. That puts us in a good position heading into the next round and beyond."
The Barons will begin the second round on Thursday, May 3 at the Cox Convention Center against the San Antonio Rampage (Florida Panthers). The club practiced Friday, will get Saturday and Sunday off and will return to ice on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in preparation for the game.