The Fort McMurray Oil Barons struck early and often en route to their fifth straight win and third straight against the team chasing them in the standings the Whitecourt Wolverines.
Brandon Ralph and Ryan Cox led the attack each scoring a pair of goals as the MOB (39-10-3) beat the Wolverines (36-12-6) 5-2 Thursday night at the Casman Centre.
“We look at our team strength and it’s all built around speed and getting there and pressuring and forcing other teams to play at our pace. I selfishly think that not a lot of other teams can play at the pace if we are committed to it,” said MOB head coach Tom Keca who felt his team outskated the Wolverines for a good chunk of the night.
The game started off with a scary hit just 23 seconds after the opening face-off. MOB forward Hayden Ursulak skated into the corner on the forecheck and was shoved from behind by Wolverine defenceman Colton Meekhoff. Ursulak fell heavily into the end boards and needed to be helped off the ice. Meekhoff was handed a five minute major and game misconduct for checking from behind. Ursulak did not return to the game.
The MOB took advantage of the early powerplay striking 12 seconds in as Brandon Ralph banged home a loose puck. Curtis Roach found Shane Fraser on the back door, Fraser’s shot was stopped but the puck laid just outside the crease before the captain scooped it up and slid it into the gapping cage.
Ralph would add his second goal of the period at 16:05 when Fraser fed him the puck at the side of the Wolverine net. Ralph walked out and beat Sam-Jaxon Visscher on the backhand for his team leading 23rd goal.
An early powerplay goal by the Wolverines to start the second period would cut the MOB’s lead in half. Mitch Lipon spotted Eric Krienke in front and the big winger tipped in his 18th goal of the year.
The Barons restored their two goal lead three minutes later on a powerplay of their own as Ryan Cox ripped an absolute bullet into the top corner from the right face-off circle.
“That was just a laser, you could see it right from the bench,” said Keca of the shot.
The Wolverines would not go away as they would once again cut the lead to one with another powerplay goal. Nick Quillan blasted a shot through a screen that beat Eric Szudor to make it 3-2.
Before the period was out, the Wolverines would be handed another five minute major for checking from behind. As Stefan Wood skated back into his own zone, Evan Tschumi hit him right on the numbers and sent Wood flying into the end boards. Wood would stay on the ice for several minutes before being helped off. The Barons would catch a break as Wood did return to the game for the start of the third period.
“It was an unfortunate hit and that one I could sort of see and go okay,” said Keca on Meekhoff’s hit on Ursulak. “But the second one, I have my opinions on the hit and I will choose right now to keep my wallet where it is and i won’t say anything.”
The Barons would make the Wolverines pay for their undisciplined play when Cox fired home his second powerplay marker 24 seconds into the third period off a great cross ice pass from Roach. The goal was Cox’s 20th and doubled up the MOB’s lead. Special teams played a huge role in the win as the MOB went 3-6 on the man advantage.
“When you’re playing a good defensive team like Whitecourt you don’t get a lot of opportunities so when you do have a chance to make a dent on the scoreboard you have to make sure that you take advantage of it and we did that,” said Keca.
With his team trailing by two goals, Gord Thibodeau pulled Visscher with over four minutes remaining. The move back fired as Liam Izyk buried an empty netter with just over three minutes remaining in the game.
The win put the MOB up three points on the Wolverines for the North Division lead with the MOB still holding two games in hand. Eric Szudor started his 12th straight game and improved to 10-0-2 during that stretch. Keca noted that relief would be coming for Szudor who has started every game for the last month.
“Szudor will not be playing on Saturday, Chris Curr will get the start,” said Keca with a laugh. “He’s an individual who we have high hopes for, he had a great pre-season with us. He’s a technically sound goaltender and he’s had a great year in St. Albert playing Midget AAA and we appreciate him taking time away from his team and schooling so you reward a player like that.”
Keca provided injury updates on his back up goalie Josh Williams and injured forward Will Conley. Both players began skating this week and are hoping to be back in the lineup next weekend.
Hayden Ursulak’s injury status was unknown after the game as was Jordan Steenbergen’s who left the game in the first period after getting hit in the mouth by the puck while standing on the bench. Fraser tried to clear the puck out of his zone on the penalty kill and ended up shooting it into his own bench and caught Steenbergen in the mouth.
Next up for the MOB they will welcome the Olds Grizzlys to the Casman Centre Saturday night for their lone visit of the year. Puck drop at 8:00 p.m.
Written by: Taylor Pope, mymcmurray.com.
Photographer: Dan Lines