The Oklahoma City Barons are sitting on the American Hockey League's version of “the bubble.”
The top eight teams in the Western Conference make the playoffs. The Barons are in a three-way tie for seventh, eighth and ninth.
Roughly one fifth of the season — 16 games — remains.
Team captain Josh Green said a key to the Barons making the playoffs for the third consecutive year is developing chemistry in a season in which the roster has undergone constant changes.
“It's not just the forward lines. It's the defensive pairings, too,” Green said. “Once you play with a guy, you get that chemistry. You don't have to talk. You know his tendencies. That's what we need coming down the stretch, some consistency.”
Consistency will start with Yann Danis, last year's AHL goaltender of the year. Danis has returned after spending much of the past two months with the Edmonton Oilers, the Barons' NHL affiliate.
Danis, who made his first start with OKC in four weeks, was a key to the Barons' playoff run last season, when they reached the Western Conference finals.
“We definitely have the group to do it,” Danis said. “It's just a matter of jelling at the right time and playing our best hockey at the right time. When I was gone, they got some good wins. We just need to build some confidence and we'll be fine.”
Roster shuffling is common in Triple-A sports. But this season has been unique because of the NHL lockout.
Barons general manager Bill Scott describes it as two seasons. The first three months was the first season, when some of Edmonton's top young stars played in OKC. The second season, post-NHL lockout, has seen a revamped roster of young prospects sprinkled with a few veterans.
“It was a neat experience for us to have those (NHL guys) here,” Scott said. “It was good for our guys to see. It showed them what it takes to play at that level, the speed of the game. All of our games were a lot higher tempo.
“After the lockout ended, we had to readjust and bring some guys up from Stockton (in the ECHL). We had to get our feet under us again. It's been neat to see these guys come together.”
The bottom-line number is 46 different players have been on the Barons' roster. Only a handful of players, like Mark Arcobello, Colten Teubert, Taylor Fedun, Martin Marincin and Green, have been with the team all season.
“It's been an interesting year for sure,” Green said. “Every year, you know there's going to be change. But this year has been a challenge more so for the coaches putting a lineup together.”
Roster shuffling will continue the final month. One unresolved issue is the Barons have 17 forwards. Only 12 play each game.
“There are still tweaks we still have to make,” said coach Todd Nelson. “We don't have them where we want them. We're going to have to develop some kind of chemistry. You have to live day by day. Things can happen very quickly.”
Despite constant roster changes, the Barons have built some momentum. They've collected at least one standings point in 15 of their last 21 games.
“We've been on a pretty good run,” Nelson said. “I like the way we're playing. I feel pretty good about it.”
Ten teams are tightly packed between fifth and 14th place. The Barons play 11 of their final 16 games against the other nine playoff contenders.
“We hold the cards,” Scott said. “It's up to us. We will decide our own fate. ... I like where our team is at mentally. I like the way we've been playing. Right now I'll put our guys up against any team in our league.”
Race to the finish
Ten teams in the American Hockey League's Western Conference are battling for the final four playoff spots.
GP, Team, Pts.
61, Houston, 70
61, Rochester, 70
59, Chicago, 67
60, Oklahoma City, 67
65, Abbotsford, 67
60, Milwaukee, 66
62, Rockford, 66
63, Peoria, 63
64, Lake Erie, 63
61, San Antonio, 61
Barons vs. Houston
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Cox Convention Center
Tickets: Starting as low as $10 at box office or by calling (405) 232-GOAL.
Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1
Scouting report: Barons forward Mark Arcobello (52 points) has passed Jordan Eberle (51) for the team scoring lead. Eberle compiled his points in three months before returning to Edmonton following the NHL lockout. ... Promoted midway through the season from Double-A, Toni Rajala is second on the Barons' roster with 26 points. ... Justin Fontaine (39 points) is Houston's second leading scorer. Top scorer Jason Zucker (41) was promoted to the Minnesota Wild. ... Houston has dominated the season series, winning seven of nine games, but three of the Aeros' wins were shootouts.