GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - An unforgettable season for the Oklahoma City Barons has come to an end.
Without Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz and other hosts on the highlight reel, the Barons registered a 22-9-0-6 record since the start of the NHL season. As one of the American Hockey League's best teams down the stretch and into the post-season, the club put up a heck of a fight but couldn't outlast the Grand Rapids Griffins in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.
Chris VandeVelde, Teemu Hartikainen, Antti Tyrvainen and Taylor Fedun each scored, but it wasn't meant to be. A late goal by Tomas Jurco proved to be the difference, lifting the Griffins to a 5-4 victory and a berth in the 2013 Calder Cup Final.
"It was a great season," Head Coach Todd Nelson said. "I think the guys learned a lot this year. They learned how to deal with adversity and they're better men now than they were at the start of the year because of it. They've always been very good people, but their character and how they handled the adversity this year was tremendous.
"To see how they fought through adversity this year was amazing and truly inspirational. We did it all together and that's the most important. The guys are pretty down right now, but they can walk out of the room with their heads held high."
"I'm pretty proud of the guys," captain Josh Green added. "They worked extremely hard and battled right to the end. It seemed like we played our best when our backs were up against the wall.
"It was crazy. It was one of the most interesting seasons I've ever been a part of. It was a lot of fun."
On the back of a huge Game 6 victory less than 24 hours earlier, the Barons became the fourth team in AHL history to win three road elimination games.
The Barons have said all along that they prefer doing things the hard way.
No team has ever won four. For the time being, it will remain that way.
"I was telling the guys after the game, ‘When you guys do win a championship, and hopefully you're fortunate enough to, it really makes you appreciate what you went through and what you accomplished,'" Nelson said. "This is going to make them stronger and I think this feeling with stick inside them for the rest of their lives, knowing how close we were."
At one point this season, the Barons found themselves on the outside looking in (as low as 11th) when it came to the Western Conference playoff picture. By year's end, they were among elite company as one of the League's best teams.
In the past three years, only three teams have been able to produce 40-win campaigns and secure a post-season berth in each. The Barons are one of them (the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins and Milwaukee Admirals are the others). The organization should be very proud.
"It was a very difficult year," Nelson said. "It was very emotional, very up and down. But we had a group of guys that really wanted to play hard for each other. Everybody counted us out after the lockout ended -- they said we'd never make the playoffs. But we came together and we battled the rest of the season and that's a testament to the guys in the room, the coaching staff and everybody involved."
Jumping out in front, Grand Rapids took a 1-0 lead 54 seconds in when Jan Mursak redirected Adam Almquist's point shot past a screened Yann Danis.
The Barons got on the board with a little more than seven minutes to play in the period. After collecting a drop pass from Ben Eager in the neutral zone, VandeVelde cruised down the middle and beat Mrazek clean through the wickets.
"I thought we were playing really well and were going," VandeVelde said. "I thought we dominated the line we were playing against and we got rewarded for it with some goals and a lot of ice time."
Eager ended the night with a pair of assists.
Just 25 seconds later on their very next shot, the Barons grabbed a 2-1 lead. Bulling his way to the slot and using the defender as a screen, Hartikainen powered a shot past the goaltender.
They were in the driver's seat, but their opponent wouldn't lie down.
As CJ Stretch was off serving a hooking minor, Tomas Tatar brought the game back on even terms, slapping at a loose puck in the slot and netting his team-leading 11th of the post-season.
Grand Rapids scored another power-play goal to regain the lead at 9:47 of the second. This time it was Gustav Nyquist doing the damage, swooping into a shooting position and beaming a wrist shot up and over the left shoulder of Danis.
On an odd-man rush with VandeVelde, Tyrvainen and the Barons caught a break to tie it up. Attempting a cross-ice pass to his hard-charging teammate, Tyrvainen's pass pinballed in off the skate of Nathan Paetsch at the lip of the crease.
The fourth line combined to record four goals, one assist and 10 shots on goal in the loss.
"I thought (the fourth line) was getting better and better the longer we were playing and was excited to see what they could do for us in the next round," Green said. "They played great for us all playoffs. They gave us a lot of energy and with the goals tonight, we wouldn't have been in the position that we were in without them."
The Barons kept the momentum rolling into the third.
Pouncing on a rebound at the near circle after Mark Arcobello's point shot was turned aside, Fedun sailed a lightning-quick wrister over a sprawling Mrazek to give the visitors a 4-3 lead at 1:41.
"We were [feeling good] at that point," Green said. "We made it hard on ourselves, but certainly with that 4-3 lead we wanted to hold onto it and put the game away. We had a 3-on-1 when we were up 4-3 and that could have been a game-changer, too, but we didn't capitalize."
That proved costly.
Mursak notched his second of the night less than six minutes later, making it a 4-4 game before the third was 10 minutes old.
Jurco scored the game-winner with 6:12 to play.
Racing end to end and with room to skate, the slick Slovakian split Andrew Hotham and Randy Jones before delivering a wrist shot past Danis on the blocker side.
The Barons pulled Danis for an extra-attacker with 1:35 to play and, while Mrazek was peppered with a number of high-quality chances in deep, it wasn't enough.
"I think (the experience) goes a long way," Eager, who won a Calder Cup in 2005 with the Philadelphia Phantoms, said post-game. "Personally, I was part of a couple long runs when I was a younger player. I think guys will take this and remember it for the rest of their lives. Next time they're in this situation, they'll know what it takes to get to the next round.
"The guys can all go out with their heads held high. Everyone gave it a good effort."
"We've grown a lot as a team, as a whole," VandeVelde added. "We came a long way this season and everyone's improved and everyone's gotten better. That's what good teams do. It sucks that we couldn't pull this one out, but that's the name of the game and we're moving forward into next year."