So that’s what all the fuss was about.
The Oklahoma City Barons’ young guns were decidedly off the mark in a 4-0 loss to the Abbotsford Heat on Friday, but they gave a far better account of themselves in a 2-1 overtime triumph in Saturday’s rematch at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
Playing before a sellout crowd of 7,046 fans for a second consecutive night, OKC’s Taylor Hall and Abbotsford’s Dustin Sylvester exchanged third-period goals. Then at 1:36 of the extra frame, Justin Schultz gave the Barons the victory.
Jumping into the rush, the AHL’s leading point-getter took a drop pass from Jordan Eberle and ripped a glove-side wrist shot past Heat goalie Danny Taylor.
“I was thinking about changing,” admitted Schultz, who was tired at the end of a long shift. “But I stayed out there, and Ebs had it, and I knew he was going to find me. He made a great pass. Their D-man was kind of screening the goalie, so I just put it in.”
At this point, Schultz must be used to being the focus of scrutiny.
When he turned pro out of the University of Wisconsin in the spring and became an unrestricted free agent thanks to a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement, he had every team in the NHL vying for his services. The Kelowna native ended a high-profile courtship by choosing the Edmonton Oilers over, among other teams, the Vancouver Canucks.
He’s done nothing but enhance his reputation during his first pro campaign. Through Saturday’s action, his 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 12 games were tops in the AHL – simply remarkable for a defenceman.
In Abbotsford, a cluster of Canucks fans booed him every time he touched the puck on Friday.
But on Saturday, Schultz had the last laugh.
“I thought it was pretty funny,” he said of the boos. “I didn’t notice it until the third period. All the guys gave me a hard time. It was good.”
For much of the weekend, Heat goalie Danny Taylor was the story.
He posted a 23-save shutout on Friday, and the Barons’ big guns took turns being stoned by the Heat keeper for the first two periods on Saturday.
In the second period, Taylor kicked out his right pad to rob Eberle from point-blank range. Early in the third, he made a sterling glove save on Nugent-Hopkins, who had labelled a wrist shot for the top corner.
Just when the Barons’ bevy of big-time youngsters must have been wondering if Taylor was human, Hall finally broke through. On the lone OKC power play of the night, he collected a rebound off Teemu Hartikainen’s shot and lifted it over a fallen Taylor.
The goal snapped OKC’s team-record scoreless streak of 187 minutes and two seconds, stretching over parts of four games.
It also put a dent in the Heat’s peerless penalty-kill proficiency. Abbotsford had been 44-for-45 in man-disadvantage situations this season.
But there was no quit in the Heat. With 1:45 left in the third period, Ben Street’s sharp-angle shot caromed to Sylvester at the far side of the cage, and he deposited the puck behind Barons goalie Yann Danis.
But Schultz salvaged a win for the Oilers’ affiliate in OT.
“It was a good game all-around for us,” Hall said. “From start to finish we played really well. It’s good to see some of our big guys get on the board. It’ll be a good ride home now.”
The Heat were out-played in the first two periods, and head coach Troy Ward said he felt his crew was “a step behind mentally.”
But they came with a solid push in the third period, out-shooting the Barons 19-9, and earning three of four possible points on the weekend was a solid outcome.
“If you go back to the…supposedly daunting task of who we were playing, we didn’t give up a five-on-five goal,” Ward noted. “We gave up a four-on-four goal and they got a power play goal in two complete games. I feel pretty good where our team is at.”
Sylvester noted the Barons showed more moxie in the second game of the weekend after a listless performance in the opener.
“They were probably a bit bitter over last night,” he said. “They came out a lot harder tonight. That was expected – we knew they were going to do that.
“We didn’t play too well in the first two periods but near the end of the second we started to come on and in the third we played a lot better. Fortunately we got one point out of it.”
• Barons coach Todd Nelson had played his trio of high-end NHL forwards – Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins – on separate lines on Friday in an effort to balance the attack. It did not have the desired effect. The three were in the starting lineup together on Saturday, and were far more effective.
• On their way off the ice, the Barons saluted the crowd, which contained many Oilers fans – including some who had made the trip all the way from Edmonton.
“You don’t see that often,” Schultz noted. “But they were great both games, so we gave them a little salute.”
• Krys Kolanos, the Heat’s leading scorer last season, was the odd man out in the veteran equation. He and defenceman Zach McKelvie were scratched, in favour of right winger Adam Estoclet and veteran D-man Joe Piskula.
• The Heat are back in action on home ice with a Tuesday-Wednesday set against the Lake Erie Monsters (7 p.m. both nights, AESC).
Justin Schultz and Jordan Eberle of the OKC Barons celebrate after combining on the game-winning goal in overtime. (Craig Fehr photo)