GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Facing elimination tonight in Game 6, the Oklahoma City Barons have been given a lift.
Anton Lander is back in the fold.
The 22-year-old centre has missed the past three weeks with a sprained knee, but has been practicing all week and has been cleared to play.
As a result, Head Coach Todd Nelson will deploy the same line combinations that produced back-to-back wins earlier this post-season against the Charlotte Checkers.
Lander will be reunited on the Nordic Line with Toni Rajala and Teemu Hartikainen. CJ Stretch, who had been on spot duty with the Finns in Lander's absence, will slide down to the third unit alongside Tyler Pitlick and captain Josh Green. Chris VandeVelde will centre the fourth line with Ben Eager and Antti Tyrvainen on his wings.
The top line of Philippe Cornet, Mark Arcobello and Jonathan Cheechoo will remain intact.
Ryan Martindale is the odd man out.
"I'm excited," Lander said. "I haven't had too many practices, but I started skating earlier this week, I feel good and I'm ready to go tonight.
"It's a little frustrating being up in the stands and watching the guys play, but I'm happy to be back right now. When the team's winning, you're happy no matter what. But these last couple games when we've been losing, you want to get back and help the team."
"Everything checked out," Head Coach Todd Nelson added. "We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing. He looks good out there and he's ready to play.
"We're excited to have him back."
Lander last played on May 13 against the Texas Stars. He suffered a lower-body injury early on, but returned to score a big goal en route to a 4-0 Barons win.
In six post-season appearances, the 6-foot-0, 194-pound pivot recorded four goals (including the overtime-winner in Game 1 against the Stars) and an assist.
"I'm excited to play with him again," Hartikainen, the Barons' second-leading scorer in the post-season, said after the morning skate. "All year when we've been playing together, he's been good for our line. He works extremely hard, he wants to win every battle and he's a fighter in the corners.
"I like playing with Anton. "He's so responsible and he does everything, so it makes life for us pretty easy. (Chemistry) comes naturally for our line. I know where he is at all times and he knows where I am. It adds to the creativity a little bit, too. Sometimes you can make a blind pass because you know where he's going to be. It's the small things. When you play with the same guys for most of the year, you know where they're going to end up."
"We play well together," Lander added. "We know exactly what we get from each other. We play a simple game and that's where we're most effective."
RIGHT HERE. RIGHT NOW.
The time is now and the Barons know it. Without a goal on Petr Mrazek in over 163 minutes, they're running out of opportunities. The rookie netminder has stopped 77 saves in the past two games combined and is the reason the Barons are on the brink of elimination.
Having a bird's eye view of the past seven games, Lander has a theory as to why the club has been struggling to score.
"We need to get more bodies in front of the net and stay there," he said. "We've been getting a lot of shots, but we go away from the net from the last second and let the goalie see the puck. We need to hang around, screen the goalie and pick up some rebounds. That will be the biggest key."
If the morning skate is any indication, the Barons are a loose group heading into Game 6. Having already proven that they can win at Van Andel Arena this series, OKC needs a pair on back-to-back nights to advance to the Calder Cup Final against the Syracuse Crunch.
It won't be easy, but it's not impossible. All year the Barons have been a solid road team and so far in the post-season, they have collected a 4-3 record away from the Cox Convention Center.
"I like playing on the road," Hartikainen said. "We won the last game on the road in here, so why not today? Let's go to Game 7."
"There's no pressure on us -- we're expected to lose tonight," Nelson laughed. "They're up in the series in their own building and will try to close it out. The pressure is all on them. We can't be afraid of dying. We want our guys to go out there and have fun.
"When the smoke clears at the end of the day, we'll see what happens."
Western Conference Final: Griffins lead best-of-seven series 3-2.
Playoff Record: Barons: 9-6-0; Griffins: 10-6-0.
Setting the Stage: Late second-period goals by Tomas Jurco, Mitch Callahan and Tomas Tatar lifted the Griffins to a 3-0 victory in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final. Rookie netminder Petr Mrazek made 37 saves for his second straight shutout and fourth of the post-season.
In the heart of the series, the Barons won only one of three games on home ice at the Cox Convention Center and will now need back-to-back wins to stay alive and move on to the Calder Cup Final.
Griffins: Stopping all 77 shots he faced in Games 4 and 5 combined, rookie goaltender Petr Mrazek has been a rock between the pipes. The 21-year-old has not allowed a goal in over 163 minutes and is now in possession of a miniscule 1.40 goals-against average and .960 save percentage in the series.
Since being assigned to the Griffins after the Detroit Red Wings were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson have certainly made an impact. The newcomers have combined to record a goal and three assists in the past two games.
According to Head Coach Todd Nelson, however, their contributions aren't surprising and he's been pleased with how his top pairing of Brandon Davidson and Garrett Stafford have matched up against them.
"They're doing well," he said. "They're going to get opportunities because they're that good and that dynamic, but they're containing them and that has to continue."
"We don't have the last change in Grand Rapids, but we'll do what we can to get them out against those guys."
Barons: Coming into the series as the American Hockey League's top scoring team in the post-season (42 goals in 10 games), OKC's offence has dried up completely.
Philippe Cornet was the last to beat Mrazek with a goal at 16:35 in Game 3.
A lot of it has to do with special teams. The Barons failed to convert on six separate power-play chances in Game 5, giving up a shorthanded goal in the process. The club is now 1-for-21 with the man-advantage in the series.
What the Barons are doing well is getting shots to the net (40 in Game 4 and 37 in Game 5), but it hasn't been enough.
"(Mrazek) has played extremely well, but I don't think we're making it as tough on him as we should," said Nelson. "We've had plenty of opportunities to score, but we have to bury the chances that we do get. It's a lack of execution right now. We're fanning on pucks and missing open nets."
"You've got to give him credit because he's been outstanding," added defenceman Taylor Fedun, "but a lot of the shots we got off (in Game 5), it seemed like we were hitting him in the chest a lot. His positioning is good, but we need to shoot for the corners and make him work a little harder."
Injury Report: Anton Lander (lower body) is questionable; Curtis Hamilton (knee surgery) is out; Dan Ringwald (concussion) is out; Alex Plante (broken jaw) is out; Tanner House (concussion) is out.
Lander made the trip to Grand Rapids and could be available to play in Game 6, Nelson revealed Sunday.
The 22-year-old last played on May 13 in Game 3 against the Texas Stars.
Puck Drop: The Barons have been in this situation before. Facing elimination against the Charlotte Checkers earlier on this post-season, OKC rattled off consecutive victories, throttling the Checkers 8-2 and 6-1 to take the opening-round series three games to two.