The Oklahoma City Barons have been an exceptional road team the past three months.
In the opening round of the American Hockey League playoffs against Charlotte, they had to win back-to-back road games to stave off elimination.
But winning games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals at Grand Rapids against a hot goaltender is a more daunting challenge than rallying against Charlotte a month ago.
“Our backs are against the wall,” said defenseman Taylor Fedun. “But every time we've put ourselves in that situation we've played really well. Hopefully, we'll keep that streak going ... I guess sometimes we need that little dose of desperation.”
The Barons cruised in their Western semifinal series against the top-seeded Texas Stars. OKC won the best-of-7 series in five games.
Oklahoma City was up 2-1 against Grand Rapids before Griffins goaltender Petr Mrazek started standing on his head. Riding the momentum of winning Games 4 and 5 at the Cox Convention Center by a combined 7-0 score, the Griffins need just one win to advance to the AHL finals, which begin with Games 1 and 2 Saturday and Sunday in Syracuse.
Game 6 of the Western Conference finals is Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Van Andel Arena. If the Barons win, Game 7 would be Wednesday night.
Mrazek is a rising star in the Red Wings system. He is playing well, but the Barons feel they've squandered quality scoring chances, tip-ins and backdoor plays they usually cash in on.
Oklahoma City has outshot Grand Rapids by 47 shots in the series (175-128) but the Griffins have been the only team to score the past two games — winning 4-0 on Saturday and 3-0 on Sunday.
Since the Barons fired 77 shots at Mrazek in back-to-back shutout losses, is frustration mounting?
“A little bit,” said Oklahoma City forward Chris Vande Velde. “Running into a hot goaltender is part of the game. Maybe we're not getting some of the bounces like we've had before. If we keep shooting we'll get some breaks.”
After Sunday's loss, several players said it's as simple as driving to the net.
“It starts obviously with the shot,” said Vande Velde. “But it helps if you can get screens or tips or rebounds. That's how most goals are scored. If we get traffic to the net we'll get some goals.”
If the Barons can turn the momentum with an early goal or two in Game 6 they have a track record of playing well on the road.
In March, April and May Oklahoma City won two out of every three road games.
A sparkling 10-2-2 road record the final two months of the regular season sparked a late-season rally needed just to qualify for the playoffs. In the playoffs, the Barons are 4-3 on the road.
“Obviously we wish we would have gotten at least one more at home, but we've won there before,” Vande Velde said. “We're going to go play two strong games. We have nothing to lose. Let's go there and try to get two wins.”
Despite the recent drought against Mrazek the Barons still have four of the top 10 scorers in the playoffs. And they might be getting Anton Lander back for Game 6. Lander has been sidelined three weeks with a knee injury he suffered in Game 3 of the second-round series against the Texas Stars.
The way the Barons view it, two No. 1 caliber lines are due to break out of an offensive slump.
The line of Jonathan Cheechoo, Mark Arcobello and Philippe Cornet had a few scoring chances in Game 5. Teemu Hartikainen, Toni Rajala and either C.J. Stretch or Lander is a line capable of scoring a couple of goals in a game.
“We'll play with confidence. We know we have success when we're doing things right,” Cornet said. “The reason we were scoring goals the first three games was because we were driving the net a lot more in front of Mrazek where he couldn't step up and stop it. We've just got to go back to basics.”
Road success late in the season gives the Barons confidence.
Losing Games 4 and 5 was the first time the Barons have lost back-to-back games in regulation since mid-January, a span of 51 games.
Oklahoma City must win back-to-back road games or the season will end in the Western Conference finals for the second consecutive season.
“This is a good opportunity for us to go back to Grand Rapids,” Cornet said. “We had success there. We lost Game 1 but played a really good game. We won Game 2. We just have to keep it simple. We have to win the first one. If we win the first one, then I like our chances to win the series.”