With the Barons fighting for the top spot in the Western Conference and Houston desperately battling to stay in the American Hockey League playoff hunt, Friday's game at the Cox Center took on a postseason feel.
The Barons took advantage, getting magnificent goaltending from Yann Danis and a spark from three players returning from the NHL to pull out a 2-1 win over the Aeros in front of 5,550 fans.
“It's going to be those types of games,” Danis said of the postseason. “It's going to be physical, it's going to be close. We're going to have to win those 1-0, 2-1 games. For them, it was a playoff game and for us also, because we definitely want to build some momentum.”
The win moved the Barons (44-21-9) a step closer to clinching the top spot in the Western Conference.
With OKC's win and Toronto's loss at Abbotsford on Friday night, the Barons need just one standings point in their final two games -- or for Toronto to lose Sunday at Abbotsford -- to clinch the Western Conference's best record. That would give Oklahoma City home-ice advantage throughout the conference side of the postseason.
The Barons play at 7 p.m. Saturday at Texas before finishing the regular season at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in San Antonio.
Danis has been the top goaltender in the AHL this season and showed it again Friday night against Houston.
Early, he came up big in turning away a long 5-on-3 power play chance by Houston.
Then with less than five minutes remaining and the Barons up 2-1, Danis found himself out of position but whipped his stick across the ice to tip the puck away to end what proved as the Aeros' last solid chance to tie.
“That's the reason he's the Goalie of the Year, and tonight's no different,” Barons forward Mark Arcobello said. “That's how we expect him to be in the playoffs.”
After dropping back-to-back games at home last weekend, the Barons received a spark from Teemu Hartikainen, Chris VandeVelde and Colten Teubert. The trio returned from their stint with the Barons' parent club, the Edmonton Oilers, and immediately contributed, none more than Hartikainen.
Paired with Magnus Paajarvi and Josh Green, Hartikainen immediately paid dividends.
Late in the first period, he delivered a drop pass to Paajarvi, who slapped it past Houston goaltender Matt Hackett for a 1-0 lead.
After the Aeros tied it early in the second, converting on a second 5-on-3 chance, Arcobello worked hard in the corner, eventually creating his own scoring chance just a after a Barons power play had ended.
“It's the end of a long shift, and we get rewarded at the end,” Arcobello said. “We had a couple good chances on the power play and then I didn't get all of the shot but it found its way home.”
About the only negative for the Barons were the penalties, a near-constant thorn in their side down the stretch.
The Aeros (33-25-16) had eight power-play chances but could just convert on the lone two-man advantage. Houston's leading scorer, Jon DiSalvatore, scored his 28th goal of the season.
“We've got to make sure we're more disciplined than that,” Barons coach Todd Nelson said. “We've got to be a bit smarter on those.”