For the second consecutive year, the Oklahoma City Barons' season ended in the American Hockey League Western Conference finals.
This time, they came up one goal short in an entertaining, seven-game classic that matched two hot goaltenders and the two highest scoring offenses in the Calder Cup playoffs.
“We wish we were in Syracuse, but it was a successful season,” said Barons general manager Bill Scott, referring to Syracuse hosting Grand Rapids in Games 1 and 2 of the AHL finals this weekend. “It was an even series that came down to the final goal in the third period. Unfortunately, we were just a little bit short.”
The Barons led the best-of-7 Western Conference finals 2-1 but were shut out in Games 4 and 5 at home.
Oklahoma City rallied with three goals the final 11 minutes to post a dramatic 4-3 win in Game 6 in Grand Rapids.
In Game 7, the Barons were up 4-3 early in the third period.
“I thought we were in control,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “The game turned when we had a three-on-one (rush). If we had capitalized we would have gone up 5-3. We didn't capitalize. Two shifts later, they tied it up. That's how close the series was. Our guys played their hearts out.”
The difference in the Western Conference finals proved to be Detroit assigning NHL-savvy forwards Joakim Andersson and Gustav Nyquist to Grand Rapids after the Red Wings were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Before Andersson and Nyquist joined the Griffins for Game 4, Grand Rapids was 0-of-9 on the power play the first three games.
With Andersson and Nyquist playing key roles on the power play, Grand Rapids was 6-of-14 with the man advantage. Andersson scored four points in four playoff games, including three passes that set up momentum-changing goals.
In addition to the Griffins' high production with the man advantage, Oklahoma City was 2-of-30 on the power play in the series.
“We did pretty well five-on-five against them, but it was a huge difference on the power play after those two guys joined them,” Scott said. “Special teams usually is a difference maker.”
Oklahoma City outshot the Griffins by 47 shots in the series. The Barons were outshot in only game — Game 6, the game they rallied with three late goals to force Game 7.
“It was a lot of fun, but it's disappointing when you don't win the Cup,” said forward Teemu Hartikainen, who has played with the Barons the past three years but is expected to play all next season in Edmonton. “You feel bad that you're that close and didn't make it. But it was a great season.”
The Barons were one of the AHL's hottest teams the final three months after dropping to 11th in the Western Conference standings two weeks after young Edmonton stars Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz returned to the Oilers after playing three months with the Barons.
Team captain Josh Green, 35, played on a championship team in Austria but has never been on a Cup championship team.
“After we lost Game 7 it was one of the emptiest feelings I've ever had because of what could have been,” Green said. “We were so close to moving to the finals. But having a day to reflect on it, we had a really great season considering all the adversity we went through. I'm so proud of all the guys.”
Edmonton's Triple-A affiliate hasn't played for the AHL title in 20 years. Oklahoma City came close to ending the drought.
The Barons' first three seasons marks the first time in franchise history that Edmonton's Triple-A affiliate has recorded 40 or more wins three consecutive seasons.
“People talk about winning (versus) development at this level,” Nelson said. “To us, winning is a form of development. It showed this year. Our guys played with a lot of heart and character, things that will help them as they advance through the system.”
Nelson has been part of five championship teams. He was a player and assistant coach on two AHL Calder Cup teams. He also was part of three United Hockey League championships, including two as a head coach.
“It is so hard to win a cup,” Nelson said. “But once you accomplish that goal you have a taste in your mouth that drives you that you want to do it again. Your goal is to win the Calder Cup. We're disappointed we fell just short, but we're very proud of what we've accomplished.”