Oklahoma City, OK - Prior to Game 1 of the AHL's Western Conference Final, the Oklahoma City Barons knew exactly what was required to beat the Toronto Marlies.
"Special teams are going to be huge," said Head Coach Todd Nelson at Thursday's morning skate.
They were and will continue to be throughout the series, as an 0-for-6 power(less)-play was the wrong-ended catalyst to a 3-0 loss Thursday night at the Cox Convention Center.
Highlighted in the 0-for-6 clip was the Barons' opening-period struggle. The club squandered three separate 5-on-4 chances, allowing the Marlies to establish a 2-0 lead -- one was an even-strength marker, while the other came on a power-play opportunity of their own.
"It was embarrassing," said captain Bryan Helmer, who addressed his team with a closed-door meeting post-game.
"It's something I had to do."
"It's clearly not how we wanted to start things," added Ryan Keller, who's second in Barons post-season scoring with four goals and nine points in 10 games. "There were times in the game where we played OK, but as a whole we weren't very good. The last series we were involved in (vs. San Antonio) they hung back, waited for us and played possum, but with Toronto they came at us hard and with a lot of speed.
"It shouldn't have surprised us, but maybe it did. We need to handle it a lot better."
It was particularly evident on the power-play when the Barons could barely gain the zone, let alone get a shot or a puck behind the goaltender. Neutral ice was expertly clogged, killing the club's game plan and strangling its ability to attack.
"San Antonio is very passive and you have time to make plays – [Toronto is] the total opposite. It couldn't be more of an opposite opponent. We have to understand that we're going to be under pressure to make those quick plays and have good support," Nelson said.
"We have to learn and be better in a lot of areas. Tomorrow is a new day."
Toronto came into the game having killed 35 of 36 penalties in the post-season -- a league-best (and impressive) 97.2-percent success rate on the PK. It shouldn't come as too much a surprise, though, considering the Marlies had killed at an AHL-best, 88.1-percent clip in the regular season, giving up only 37 goals on the man-advantage.
The Barons, meanwhile, were running with pedestrian, middle-of-the-road 18.9-percent power-play success rate.
"The structure of it was there, but the execution wasn't," Nelson explained. "We can't have our skilled guys coughing up the puck when it's unforced. Those things happened tonight, but we'll be sharper tomorrow."
"They outworked us. That's the bottom line," Helmer added. "On the power-play, sometimes you tend to relax but you can't do that against these guys. We've got to get pucks and get players to the net.
"It all comes down to hard work. We've got the extra player."
Just 5:47 in and with a delayed penalty upcoming on Ryan Keller, Marcel Mueller scooped up a loose puck in the mid-slot, clapping a shot past Yann Danis to make it 1-0 game.
As it turned out, it was all Toronto needed.
Minor penalties to Joe Colborne and Jerry D'Amigo presented the Barons with a pair of mid-period power-play opportunities, but both sputtered, resulting in nada on the scoreboard and a momentum swing in the Marlies' favour.
The man-advantage tables turned at 13:49 when Helmer was assessed a hooking minor. 33 seconds in, a goalmouth scramble peppered the Barons netminder with multiple shots, but he couldn't stop them all. As the biscuit swung to an open side, Nicolas Deschamps was in the right spot, pouncing and slamming it into the gaping cage.
Jay Rosehill was charged with boarding about a minute later, but nothing came of it. The same could be said when OKC's lone second-period power-play chance came and went without a threat, opening the door once more.
Toronto's Nazem Kadri engineered a dangerous-looking rush at 12:16, setting up Edmonton product Matt Frattin down the wing with speed. The 24-year-old made no mistake, sniping a wicked wrister to set the score at 3-0.
"That was the dagger right there," the coach said.
Danis stopped 27 shots in the loss. At the other end, Ben Scrivens wasn't heavily tested. The Barons stayed close on the shot clock (a three-period head-to-head result of 32-31), but most were outside attempts were or lobbed into the breadbasket. And by my count, OKC only registered a single scoring chance -- an on-the-doorstep whack in the opening period that Scrivens denied with an athletic pad save.
He won't get an easier shutout.
"I don't think we made (Scrivens) work very hard, although he made the saves when he had to," Nelson said. "They kept everything to the outside, but when there was a breakdown, he was there."
Colborne and Jake Gardiner added goals in the third, adding some not-needed salt into the Barons' wounds.
"We've got to get to the net better," Keller said. "There weren't any, or not enough, second chances. We've got to make Scrivens work to stop pucks through screens.
"We've got to come out desperate (Friday), we've got to compete and be hungry. We need it more than they do and we've got to come with that mentality."
Game 2 goes Friday night at the Cox Convention Center. Puck drop is at 6pm MT. -- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow @ryandittrick