By Jim Charshafian
After eliminating the Chicago Wolves in a grueling five-game first round playoff series last week, the San Antonio Rampage have now set their sights on their next opponent, the Oklahoma City Barons. The puck drops on San Antonio’s Western Conference Semifinal series against Oklahoma City on Thursday, and the Rampage know they’ll be in for a tough test against the Barons.
Oklahoma City, who finished with the best record in the Western Conference during the regular season and dispatched of the Houston Aeros in four games in the Quarterfinals, were one of the stingiest defensive teams in the AHL all year. They ranked second overall in goals against per game, giving up 2.32 per contest, and their goaltender, Yann Danis, was atop the leaderboard in many goaltending categories after posting a 2.07 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. He allowed four goals in four games versus the Aeros in the first round.
The Rampage were among the league’s best defensive squads as well, as they were ranked seventh in goals against per game with an average of 2.68. Their solid goaltending duo of Jacob Markstrom and Dov Grumet-Morris helped them develop a reputation as being one of the AHL’s best teams in their own end throughout the second half of the regular season. Neither the Barons nor the Rampage are expected to suddenly change their identity when the series begins on Thursday, so coach Chuck Weber and the rest of the Rampage are ready for a low-scoring battle.
“We expect more of what we saw from them during the regular season,” said Weber. “We’re two teams who have a ‘defense first’ mentality. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes and whoever works the hardest will win the series.”
Markstrom, who maintained a 2.46 G.A.A. and a .922 save percentage in three games against the Wolves in the opening round, won’t get caught up in the goaltender matchup against Danis. “I don’t worry about the other goalie,” he said. “I only worry about what I can do for my team. It’s going to be tough. Every goal counts. It’ll be important that we don’t get frustrated because we expect every game to come down to the end.”
Weber believes that in a series with two teams with similar defensive styles, special teams will be key. The Rampage power play, which tied for the AHL lead in the first round with seven power-play goals, led the league with a 31.8 conversion rate in the Quarterfinals. They’ll be matched up against a Barons penalty kill that was 13-13 during their first round set against the Aeros.
“Special teams will make the difference,” said Weber. “Our power play will have to stay hot and we’re going to need to get some timely penalty kills.”
Defenseman Colby Robak, one of the stalwarts of the Rampage power play, said that finesse will be the last thing on San Antonio’s mind when they are on the attack.
“We’re going to need to take advantage of our offensive opportunities,” he said. “We have to be patient and when we get our chances, we just have to throw the puck on net as much as we can.”
The Rampage and Barons figure to play a series where gritty play and “greasy goals,” as Weber likes to call them, will be featured often.
“We have to stick to our identity,” Weber said. “We’re prepared to play 0-0 until five minutes left in every game.”