The Oklahoma City Barons and Charlotte Checkers last season squared off in a season-on-the-line Game 5 in a first-round American Hockey League playoff series.
A year later, the West division rivals meet Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Cox Convention Center. The two games might play a factor on which of the two teams qualify for the playoffs.
With seven games left in the regular season, the Western Conference playoff picture essentially is four teams fighting for the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds.
Heading into Friday night’s action at 7, Charlotte and Rockford were tied for the final two playoff spots with 75 standings points. Oklahoma City is two points back. Rochester, in 10th, is three points behind the Checkers and IceHogs.
“These four (standings) points this weekend are huge,” said Barons defenseman Brad Hunt. “This could be the season for both teams. We’re similar teams, both highly skilled, run-and-gun teams. It should be a lot of fun, almost like a playoff series.”
Twice fending off possible elimination, the Barons won Games 4 and 5 in Charlotte a year ago to gain momentum that sparked a run to the Western Conference finals.
Charlotte’s roster still features 17 players who played in that elimination game the Barons won 6-2. Only four Barons players that skated in Game 5 last year (C.J. Stretch, Taylor Fedun, Brandon Davidson and Ben Eager) will play this weekend.
Mark Arcobello, the Barons’ all-time scorer, was OKC’s leading point-producer in last year’s playoffs. But he is sideline this weekend with what the Edmonton Journal calls a shoulder injury. The Barons’ next four-leading scorers from last year’s playoffs (Tony Rajala, Teemu Hartikainen, Josh Green and Jonathan Cheechoo) are playing overseas.
In contrast, Charlotte has some of the AHL’s top scorers who played key roles a year ago. Zach Boychuk (67 points) is fourth in league scoring. Chris Terry (66) is fifth. However, Aaron Pahshaj (57) might be sidelined with an injury.
It appeared the Barons might catch a break when Boychuk and Terry were promoted earlier this week to the Carolina Panthers, the Checkers’ NHL affiliate. But both players were reassigned to Charlotte before Friday night’s game in San Antonio.
“They have their full lineup against us, a team that’s pretty depleted,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “But this is a good opportunity for some of our young players to step up.”
Bolstered by Arcobello’s return two months ago, the Barons have been one of the AHL’s hottest teams the past two months (15-5-5).
“Our guys recognize how important these two games are,” Nelson said. “We’re getting down to the nitty gritty. We’ve scratched and clawed to get back into it, and we’ve played well at home. We need to go get two wins.”
Two wins would enhance Oklahoma City’s chances of making the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Lose both and the playoffs probably are a longshot.
Regulation wins are worth two standings points while the loser gets none. In Charlotte last weekend, the Barons lost both games but salvaged one standings point from each game because they went to shootouts.
“It’s pretty much do-or-die this weekend,” Stretch said. “They have a ton of skill guys we have to shut down. You can’t let them get their offense rolling. Our veterans and young guys, all of us, have to step up. If we play hard we can get a couple of wins we really need.”