The Los Angeles Kings last season qualified for the playoffs the final week of the regular season and were the No. 8 seed. The defending Stanley Cup champions are a classic example of a hockey team with a hot goaltender that turned late-season momentum into an extended playoff run.
The Oklahoma City Barons carry a similar resume into the American Hockey League playoffs.
OKC clinched a playoff berth the next-to-last regular season game Saturday night but are the AHL's hottest team with a hot goaltender.
“This is the time of year you want to be playing well,” said veteran forward Jonathan Cheechoo. “We're looking to do some damage. We're not just happy we got in. This is when the real season starts.”
Led by Chris VandeVelde's third and fourth goals in two games and Toni Rajala's 17th goal since joining OKC after the NHL lockout ended, the Barons defeated Houston 3-0 Sunday afternoon at the Cox Convention Center to earn the No. 5 seed.
The Barons will open the playoffs against Charlotte, hosting games Game 1 and 2 Friday night and Saturday night. Faceoff is 7 both nights.
Having lost only three games in regulation the past six weeks Oklahoma City is 13-3-3 since March 10.
“We definitely have some momentum,” said team captain Josh Green. “You never know what could happen, especially with a hot goalie. We're certainly poised to make a run. But we're trying to stay humble, knowing there's a lot of work in front of us.”
With goaltender Yann Danis in net the Barons will be a tough out. Since he returned from Edmonton six weeks ago, Danis is 10-2-3 with a 1.77 goals against average and .931 saves percentage.
Two additional stats underscore how well the Barons have played the past six weeks.
Oklahoma City has outshot opponents 14 of the past 15 games, including a 31-20 edge over Houston on Sunday.
The Barons have killed off 43 of their last 44 penalties, an insane 97.7 penalty kill percentage the past 17 games.
“Everything is clicking,” said VandeVelde, a key member of last year's team that advanced to the Western Conference finals. “It's starts with Yannie and the D-men. They've been improving all year. We're playing well at the right time.”
It's been an odd season.
Young Edmonton Oilers stars Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Justin Schultz and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played the first three months in Oklahoma City during the NHL lockout, but it didn't make a huge impact in the standings. A young, suspect defense negated those players' offensive star power.
“The first half of the season we were losing games (by losing leads), it was like your heart got ripped out,” said coach Todd Nelson. “Even in some wins we weren't doing the right things. Our defense has really improved. We've come a long ways.”
Nelson was an assistant coach on Chicago's 2008 AHL Calder Cup championship team. He was the head coach when Muskegon won Double-A titles in 2004 and 2005.
“This has a similar feeling,” Nelson said. “I like the way our team is playing. It's not like I'm foreseeing anything, but I like our chemistry. We have a good feeling in the locker room right now. Obviously our goal is to win the championship.”