The Barons have their own version of the Red River Rivalry. But the American Hockey League version is vastly different from an annual football showdown in Dallas between OU and Texas.
When the Barons host the Houston Aeros at 7 p.m. Friday and the Texas Stars at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Cox Convention Center, it will be the second and third games of 36 scheduled games against Texas-based teams.
To decrease travel, AHL schedule makers matched the Barons against the Aeros, Stars and San Antonio Rampage 12 games each. The Barons' other South Division rival, the Charlotte Checkers, is scheduled eight times.
“The advantages are you get to see their systems and whatnot,” said Barons forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “Like the (recent) series with Lake Erie, emotions can get pretty high. It becomes like a playoff series. It's good in that way.”
The Barons recently finished its four-game season series with Lake Erie, a team that is based in Cleveland. Oklahoma City played two back-to-back games in Ohio, Oct. 12-13. Lake Erie then played two games in OKC, last Saturday and Tuesday, with another road game, in Austin, Texas, in between. The Barons and Monsters cut travel costs by playing the games so close together.
The Texas teams account for nearly half of the Barons' 76-game schedule.
Starting with Friday night's game, 19 of the Barons' next 27 games through Jan. 1 will be against Texas teams.
Forward Magnus Paajarvi, a key player in the Barons' playoff run last year, said developing playoff-like rivalries during the regular season produces some spirited games.
“I don't mind it. I actually kind of like it,” Paajarvi said. “It's shorter trips. It helps with traveling. I think it's good. You know exactly what they like to do. They try to mix it up. We try to mix it up. It's like the playoffs started already. I like it.”
The AHL's unbalanced schedule is a dramatic change for players such as the Edmonton Oilers' Jordan Eberle. The All-Star is playing with the Barons during the NHL lockout.
“I'm not used to that type of schedule,” Eberle said. “You play a team that much, you get to know them. But with advancements in video — and we go over every system before every game — it's easy to get track of a team, what they're doing. The big thing is you can a lot of ground in your division.”
The big picture is those 36 games will have a huge impact on the standings and playoff seedings.
The challenge for coach Todd Nelson and assistants Rocky Thompson and Gerry Flemming is to find new wrinkles and keep players motivated.
“You can make adjustments. That's the advantage on my part,” Nelson said. “The one thing you guard against is players don't get bored seeing the same (players) all the time.”
Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini said the AHL schedule isn't ideal but doesn't detract from player development and talent evaluation.
“It doesn't matter if you're playing the same team 20 times,” Tambellini said. “You can see whether there's effort and emotion to play at this level. There are no excuses no matter who you're playing. You'd rather play a variety of teams. But from an assessment standpoint it doesn't matter.”
The Barons will play the Texas teams a ton the next two months. But there will be some variety down the line. Oklahoma City will play Toronto, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Rockford, Chicago and a couple of other non-Texas clubs between now and late April.
“I look forward to getting the season going and actually playing some other teams,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I'm sure once we get into that part of the season you'll have to grind every game. I look forward to those games. It's like the playoffs. And playoff games are the most fun to play.”