CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Oklahoma City Barons finally got their offense and defense playing to their potential.
The result was a 6-2 Barons victory over the Charlotte Checkers on Saturday in the fifth and deciding game of their American Hockey League Western Conference quarterfinal series.
Oklahoma City's 3-2 series win sends it on to the conference semifinals for the second straight year. There, the Barons will face the Texas Stars in a best-of-7 series beginning Thursday night in Cedar Park, Texas.
“We had nothing to lose as a team,” Oklahoma City head coach Todd Nelson said. “We talked to the guys, and told them ‘You can't be afraid of losing. If we're afraid of losing, we will lose.'
“We weren't expected to win this series, so they went out there, worked hard and had fun.”
Six different players — Jonathan Cheechoo, Josh Green, Teemu Hartikainen, Andrew Hotham, Anton Lander and Toni Rajala — scored for the Barons to back up a season-high 49-save effort by goalie Yann Danis and another power-play killing night by Oklahoma City's defense.
“There was no quit in them,” Charlotte head coach Jeff Daniels said. “We had quality chances (51 shots on goal) ... but we lost as a team. I thought we played the right way, and did what we had to do to win. Unfortunately, we didn't find the back of the net enough.”
The basis for the Barons' turnaround came from an embarrassing 6-1 loss to the Checkers in Game 3 on Wednesday night at Time Warner Cable Arena. That night, Oklahoma City gave up three quick goals to Charlotte, which also had three power-play scores.
But the Barons bounced back with a decisive 8-1 victory over the Checkers in Game 4 on Friday, and nearly matched that performance in Saturday's Game 5.
“We all knew that wasn't our best effort (in Game 3),” Green said. “We all knew that if we did put forth our best effort and sacrificed for one another, things would take care of themselves.
“We played pretty solid, we killed the penalties when we had to ... and thank goodness for Yanny back there. He made some big saves while we found our legs.”
Oklahoma City needed a strong game from its defense early after giving up a goal to Charlotte's Riley Nash with nine minutes left in the first period, and a second to Bobby Raymond with 2:23 remaining that tied the score at 2-2.
But the Barons were able to string together goals quickly Saturday, especially against Charlotte goalie Rob Madore.
Their first two (by Cheechoo and Lander) came over a 40-second span with 6:30 left in the first period. The next two (by Hartikainen and Green) came over a 1:38 run midway through the second to put Oklahoma City ahead to stay and chase Madore, who was replaced by John Muse.
“Scoring quickly gave us a lot of momentum,” Nelson said.
The Barons would add an insurance goal late in the second period from Rajala, and an three-quarters-rink, empty-net goal by Hotham with 1:26 remaining in the third period.
Danis — whose previous season high on saves was 43 in an overtime win over Milwaukee on Nov. 16 — came up big for a second straight game for Oklahoma City, especially during Charlotte's power-play opportunities.
After holding the Checkers to an 0-for-4 effort on power plays in Game 4, Danis and the Barons' penalty kill blanked them again in Saturday's game (0-5).
“We did a great job of blocking shots,” Danis said. “The guys cleared the front and I was able to see the puck really well. If there was a rebound, they were taking care of it.
“We know that if we play well, if we play our game, we can beat anyone. I'm not too worried about who we're playing. I'm just going to worry about how we play. If we play the way we played the last two games, we should be OK.”