The Fort McMurray Oil Barons scored early and often and held off a late surge from the Czech Republic U19 select team to defeat the international squad 5-3 Friday night at the Casman Centre.
Brandon Ralph had his most dominant game of the year as the MOB captain scored a hat-trick and added an assist in the pre-tournament game ahead of the World Junior A Challenge which kicks off Sunday in Bonnyville.
The MOB came out flying in the first period with Ralph notching his first two goals in the opening 2:33 of the game. The first just 28 seconds in as the JC Thivierge fed the captain who snapped a quick shot through the legs of Jan Ruzicka the Czech netminder.
“I saw JC jumped down the wall there and got past the guy. I was yelling for it. I didn’t really look, I just saw him touch it over to me and as soon as it got on my stick I just let it go and just lucky enough I think it went five hole,” said Ralph with a laugh.
The captain would strike for a second time on his next shift. A strong forecheck led to a Czech turnover as the defenceman’s breakout pass was picked off by Ralph who fired a shot past the glove hand of Ruzicka.
“We saw a little bit that they were going up the middle and making some blind plays. Matteo (Aiello) and Shane (Fraser) did an excellent job on the forecheck there and I just saw him look up ice and as soon as I saw his eyes go across the ice I jumped down and he put it right on my tape, it was kind of a gift,” said Ralph on the goal.
“The vibe in the dressing room was a little nervous but I think a lot of excitement and once we got that goal early it reassured us that we can play and we’re going to compete and I think we did a great job of that and we followed it for 60 minutes.”
Eric Szudor would get the start for the Barons, returning to the team after being cut by Canada West at their selection camp this week. Szudor stopped all eight shots in the first period including two breakaways as he stoned Ondrej Prochazka and later Marek Zachar.
The MOB would extend their lead to 3-0, 3:30 into the second period. A big hit from Ralph in the corner started the play. The captain went to the front of the net where Aiello found him. Ralph unselfishly slid the puck over to Fraser who tapped it into a wide open Czech goal.
The Czech Republic would get on the board near the mid-way point of the period off the rush when Radovan Pavlik snapped a shot off the far goal post and past Szudor.
The Barons used their physical play to knock the Czech team off pucks and it would lead to their fourth goal. Toby Shattler drove hard to the goal out of the corner and after Nicholas Leeseberg was stopped, the rebound was cleared right to a pinching Jordan Steenbergen who made no mistake putting the MOB up 4-1.
Ralph would complete the hat-trick seven minutes into the third when Jack Hamly fed the Fort McMurrayite at the side of the goal. Ralph’s shot went up under the bar past Petr Kvaca who came into the game at the mid-way point of the second.
Josh Williams did the same for the MOB and made several timely saves but a shifty Pavlik would score his second and third goals of the game past Williams for a hat-trick of his own on the night.
“There’s always a risk when you’re doing something like this in terms of injuries but when we looked at it as a staff and an organization, the pros heavily outweighed the cons and I think it’s not only great for our players and our organization but it’s great for our community,” said MOB head coach Tom Keca on being selected by Hockey Canada to play in the game.
The Czech Republic will begin the World Junior A Challenge Sunday as they open the tournament against Canada East. Oil Barons forward Ryan Cox and his Canada West teammates will also begin their quest for gold Sunday when they take on Switzerland in their first game.
The MOB will head to the Calgary area for a three game set next weekend before the Christmas break. The Barons will take on the Mustangs, Brooks Bandits and Canucks.