For the first time since the 2007-08 season, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons are atop the North Division at the end of the regular season. It took until game 60 to clinch the division title and a hard fought 3-2 win Sunday against the Whitecourt Wolverines.
With the teams separated by just one point in the standings the math was simple, win and you claim the North Division.
“That was probably one of the most intense games that I’ve ever been apart of,” said MOB head coach Tom Keca.
The game had all the feels of a playoff game in front of a packed house at the Scott Safety Centre including a huge section of MOB fans who made the trip to Whitecourt.
After back to back losses to start the weekend, the MOB didn’t need any extra motivation to get up for this game but they knew they were playing for more than just themselves. The Oil Barons have been a staple in Fort McMurray since their inaugural season in 1981-82 but there may have never been a bigger season than this one after everything the community went through during the May wildfires.
“Talking to the players and you get a little emotional because you want the players to realize how much this means to the community. All that we’ve been through and there was a time this year when we were all displaced and we didn’t know if the Casman Centre was still standing or whether we were going to have an organization but the collection of young men that we have in the dressing room they’ve just been a such a joy and I’m proud of everyone of them,” said Keca on what this game meant to the community.
The Barons finished last season with their third worst record in franchise history and were able to completely turn things around going from a 10 win team to a 44-13-3 record and 91 points.
“It’s a collection of kids that are from all over, we only have a couple local kids and they truly buy in to what the community is all about and whether we’re out in the community trying to give back as much as we can, at the end of the day the most important thing is your performance on the ice,” said Keca.
The teams traded chances in the first period but it was the Wolverines who led on the shot clock 12-7 and had the better scoring chances.
The Wolverines opened the scoring early in the second period when Morgan Messenger streaked down the left wing and fired a shot past Eric Szudor low on the glove side for his 28th of the year.
The MOB pushed back and outshot the Wolverines 10-6 in the frame and tied the game when Will Conley popped home a Curtis Roach feed past Pierce Diamond. The goal was Conley’s 16th of the year and the winger now has goals in back to back games.
A late penalty in the second period by the Wolverines put the MOB on the powerplay to start the third period. The Barons got the zone and sent the puck towards the Wolverines goal. The puck bounced around in front before Shane Fraser knocked home his 16th of the year to give the MOB their first lead of the game 2-1.
“We changed a couple things up in the second intermission and we got lucky, we had guys going to the net and it was a rebound to get the ball rolling,” said Keca on the powerplay goal.
A little over four minutes later, Brandon Ralph put the MOB up 3-1 with his team leading 32nd goal. Fraser won the face-off to the boards and Matteo Aiello tipped the puck to Ralph who barged his way to the goal and stuffed the puck past Diamond.
The Wolverines showed no quit and cut the lead to one with 7:36 left when Dawson Bruneski potted his fifth of the season off a pass from Jaedon Leslie.
With the goalie out for an extra attacker the Wolverines had all the pressure in the MOB’s end. The puck came to the point where Nick Quillan’s blast was blocked by the captain Ralph and bounced into centre ice to relive the pressure. Szudor shut the door the rest of the way making 27 saves in picking up his 27th win of the year.
“Szudor made some great stops but this really was a great team effort,” said Keca.
The MOB receive a bye in the first round and will be off until the March 18-19 weekend. Whitecourt will take on Grande Prairie in their first round series while Spruce Grove faces Drayton Valley and Bonnyville plays Sherwood Park.
Written by: Taylor Pope, mymcmurray.com.
Photographer: Dan Lines
AUDIO: Tom Keca discusses today's massive WIN in Whitecourt and clinching the MOB's first AJHL North Division title since the 2007/08 season.
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