Because Charlotte ranked in the top five in the league in both penalty kill and power play percentage, the Oklahoma City Barons knew special teams would be a key factor in a Western Conference best-of-five, first-round series.
One of the primary reasons the Checkers own a 2-1 series edge heading into Game 4 Friday night at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte is they are winning the special teams battle.
Charlotte has scored five power play goals in three games, including three in a 6-1 win Wednesday night.
That's a dramatic change. OKC killed off 43 of its last 44 penalties the final 17 regular-season games to clinch the franchise's third consecutive playoff berth. But in Games 1 and 3 the penalty kill unit has struggled.
“First off we can't dig ourselves a hole like we did (Wednesday) night,” said coach Todd Nelson. “If we take a penalty we have to make sure it's worth it. We can't take any unnecessary ones like lazy penalties or retaliation penalties that are undisciplined. If we take a penalty it has to be from hard work.”
Charlotte is 5-of-15 with the man advantage. But another factor is the Barons have failed to cash in, going 2-for-17 when the Checkers occupy the penalty box.
Bottom line is the Barons must win Friday night to force a winner-take-all Game 5 Saturday night in Charlotte. Lose Friday or Saturday and their season is over.
Nelson is contemplating line changes now that Anton Lander, as expected, was reassigned by Edmonton to OKC after the Oilers season ended.
Lander scored a franchise six points in a game earlier this season with the Barons. In his return game Wednesday night he was matched with Teemu Hartikainen and Philippe Cornet. But in the third period of Game 3 rookie Toni Rajala joined Hartikainen and Lander.
“I'm going to juggle up the lines a little,” Nelson said. “We haven't really decided what direction we'll go, yet. I'm pretty much going to go with combinations that helped us get where we are.”
The biggest concern from Game 3 is the much improved defense and goaltender Yann Danis are coming off a game they allowed six goals. Danis posted a 1.77 goals against average his final 15 starts. The Barons had allowed more than three goals only once in 20 games the final six weeks of the regular season.
But in the playoffs Charlotte scored four goals in the opener to rally for an overtime win, the only time the Checkers led Game 1, then got six past Danis in Game 3.
Oklahoma City was the hottest team in the league the final six weeks, going 13-3-3. But several Western Conference playoff contenders played well down the stretch. The Barons didn't clinch a playoff berth until the next-to-late regular season game.
“We've had our backs to the wall several different times this year and have always responded,” Nelson said. “This is no different. Obviously it's magnified because if we lose a game we're done. But we can't play afraid to lose. We have to go play hard and let the chips fall.”
BARONS AT CHECKERS
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Time Warner Cable Arena ( Charlotte)
Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1 Jim Byers play-by-play.
Scouting report: After splitting Games 1 and 2 in Oklahoma City, the Checkers scored three power play goals to romp to a 6-1 win in Game 3... The Barons must win back-to-back Friday and Saturday or their season is over... Charlotte's six goals were the most OKC had allowed in nearly two months... Toni Rajala (one goal, three assists) scored the Barons' lone goal in Game 3... Mark Arcobello recorded the Barons first playoff hat trick in Game 2... Charlotte's Zach Boychuk has five points, including two goals. Chris Terry has two goals and two assists... Charlotte goaltender Rob Madore, who spend most of the season in Double-A, recorded 37 saves in Game 3.