The Oklahoma City Barons begin a pivotal four-game road trip Wednesday night at Houston.
Six American Hockey League teams are battling for the final four Western Conference playoff berths.
After going 6-1-1 in their past eight games, the Barons have collected 13 of 16 possible standings points to move into seventh place.
OKC is in prime position to qualify for the playoffs for the third consecutive season, but the road trip will determine how much pressure the Barons will face when they close out the regular season with three home games April 19-21 at the Cox Convention Center.
“It looks like it's going to come down to the wire,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “We have to have a good road swing. But we've been playing well on the road. We just need to keep it going.”
The Barons struggled on the road much of the season, winning only nine of 26 road games the first four months.
But over the past five weeks, no AHL team has been as hot on the road as the Barons, who are 7-0-1 away from home since March 4. Their only road loss was in a shootout three weeks ago at Rochester.
“We're playing with a lot of character,” said goaltender Yann Danis. “Even when we've gotten behind early, we've battled back. We're finding ways to win. We're taking the challenge and rolling with it.”
Danis has played a key role in OKC making a late-season charge. Since he returned from Edmonton after spending nearly two months with the Oilers after the NHL lockout ended, Danis is 6-1-2 with a 2.07 goals-against average and .919 save percentage.
The first two games of the road trip have added significance. Houston and Rochester (where the Barons play Friday night) are tied for fifth with 82 points, two points in front of Oklahoma City. The Barons currently have a three-point cushion over ninth-place Chicago.
“We have a little breathing room but it's going to be a fight to the end,” Danis said. “We need to keep winning. Every game is going to be big.”
BARONS at HOUSTON
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Toyota Center, Houston
Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1, Jim Byers play-by-play.
Scouting report: The Aeros have won eight of 10 meetings, but three of Houston's wins have been in shootouts. All but one of OKC's eight losses in the series essentially has been by one goal if you exclude last-minute empty-netters. ... Since he was reassigned to Oklahoma City, Barons forward Teemu Hartikainen has scored eight points in seven games, including three points in Sunday's win over Chicago. ... Houston goaltender Matt Hackett is 6-1 against the Barons but has only a 2.68 goals-against average. The key has been Houston's offense. Justin Fontaine has scored 10 points and Brian Connelly nine against OKC. Mikael Granlund also has scored nine points against the Barons but currently is with the Minnesota Wild, Houston's NHL affiliate.