The Fort McMurray Oil Barons (26-20-5) did nearly everything right on Sunday afternoon in Drayton Valley.
They outshot their opponents 12-4 in the first, and 12-3 in the third.
They were perfect on the penalty kill for the first time in six games. They converted on their power play, and generated the vast majority of scoring chances despite still missing top forwards Mitch Vanderlaan and Trent Lofthouse.
Yet, the team was denied two points for the fourth consecutive matchup, losing 2-1 in a shootout.
“We’ve had that start – it was similar to our games in Sherwood Park and Spruce Grove,” said assistant coach Ryan Allen. “It’s not a switch – you can’t decide to turn it up on game three of a road trip and expect to win. We had our chances, we could have had two, three, or four in the first period, but their goalie played well.”
“We blunder a bit in the second, we fall off the map, they push, and we don’t push back after that.”
The Oil Barons had jumped out to an 11-1 shot lead just over midway through the first period before the home side Thunder began to settle the game down, thanks in no small part to spectacular goaltending by Thunder rookie Garrett Mason. By the time the middle stanza was well underway, Drayton Valley had seized firm control of the game. They outshot the Barons 17-13 in the second.
Late in the frame, on a puck rolling into the McMurray slot and being pursued by a Thunder forward, goaltender Zach Fortin dove to poke it away to the boards. But the forward in pursuit slide directly into the MOB goaltender, ramming his skate into Fortin’s helmet. The goalie stayed down and was checked on by team trainer Peter Spiers, but remained in the game for the rest of the period.
Only a couple of minutes later, a three-on-two rush for Drayton Valley produced a rebound chance for a wide-open Robert Cain, who potted just his second goal of the season past a sprawling Fortin to make it 1-0 Thunder.
“For whatever reason, this road trip particularly, we decided to have some bad second periods, some lapses and some lulls, and it was a combination of things,” said Allen. “You can’t pinpoint one thing that went wrong in the second, but we’ll continue to try to fix it as we go forward.”
Fortin did not return to start the third period, with the coaching staff saying afterwards that he was kept out for precautionary reasons.
Brett Lewchuk replaced him, and only had to make two third-period saves as the Barons dominated the final frame, taking advantage of Drayton Valley penalty trouble and finally converting on a power play, when captain Jetlan Houcher dashed from behind the net, out in front, and jammed a point blank shot in on Mason. The Thunder netminder made another great save, but an ensuing scramble in front saw the puck sneak inside the right post to finally give the Barons the elusive tying goal.
Landon Welykholowa was given credit for the tying marker; it was his first goal as an Oil Baron.
In three-on-three overtime, both teams traded spectacular odd-man rush chances, but captain Jetlan Houcher, who had already scored two overtime goals against the Thunder this season, was finally contained by the Drayton defence.
In the shootout, the goaltenders’ duel between Mason and Lewchuk went to five rounds. Jetlan Houcher and Brett Smythe both missed the net in the first round. Welykholowa, Jamie Waddington, Adam Durkee, and Trevor Poirier all had shots saved in rounds two and three. In round four, Luc Lalor was stopped, while Jordan Taupert failed to get a shot away.
Then in the decisive round five, Zach Wittenburg had the puck roll off the end of his stick, and Troy Rapuano sealed the game with a backhander to give the Thunder the dramatic win.
With the single point, the Barons did narrow the gap on Lloydminster for second in the AJHL North to just three points. But the Bonnyville Pontiacs have now crept to just two points back of the Barons with a game in hand, while the Sherwood Park Crusaders are also only two points behind, though the MOB has two games in hand on them.
The Barons will return home for a Wednesday night home game with Bonnyville at 7:30 at the Casman Centre. It will be the final game of the season series between the two North division rivals, with the Barons holding a 4-1 record against the ‘Yaks so far.
“Bonnyville has played us tough all year,” said Allen. “They gave us a pretty good licking [6-3] last time in Bonnyville, so hopefully our guys can respond and have a good effort.”
It will be the final game before a more than week long break for the team, as they will have no games until February 13th when they host Brooks.