"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

November 1, 2002
Tulsa on a tear
Loss on Halloween hardly puts a damper on club's strong start

Faceoff.com correspondent

Tulsa finally lost a game on Halloween, but you won't hear any of their fans complaining.

The Oilers reeled off five straight wins to start the season, a franchise first, and a huge improvement over last year, when Garry Unger's club didn't win its fifth until Nov. 28.

That slow start hurt all the more in March, when the Oilers finished second in their divison, but missed the final Northern conference playoff spot by just three points.

"We didn't have a bad team last year, so there wasn't an awful lot that had to be done," says Unger, the former NHL "Ironman" who is in his seventh season with the Oilers (sandwiched around a foray in New Mexico). "I just wanted to fill some holes, and put a lot of emphasis on defense."

So far so good - the Oilers are second in the league in goals allowed, 2.17 per-game. Goaltender Rod Branch, who won a championship with Oklahoma City in 2001, allowed just four tallies in his first four starts, including a shutout and a 2-1 shootout win.

His GAA entered the realm of mere mortals on Oct. 29, when the Oilers outlasted defending champions Memphis 5-4, ending a 10-game streak of RiverKing supremacy (including all nine meetings last year). Back-up Jason Stone took the 5-3 loss to Bossier-Shreveport on Thursday.

For offense, Unger brought in forward Todd Marcellus, who racked up more than 100 goals in three seasons with New Mexico before spending the last two years in Germany.

Marcellus leads the team in scoring (4Gs, 4As) as well as plus/minus (plus-7). Rookie all-star Pat Hallet is back for a second campaign, and Unger is also counting on more production from Jamie Steer and Chris Johnston, both mid-season pick-ups last year. "I knew it would be more comfortable for them, starting here," he says.

Things can only get better, as Tulsa's power play is just 1-for-29.

Naturally, the penalty kill makes up for that, allowing just two goals in 39 attempts, with one shorthanded score. And speaking of shorthanded, the Oilers have done all this without three players - 20-goal tough guy Dallas Anderson is serving out an 11-game suspension, while forwards Klage Kaebele and Derek Toninato just came off IR.

"We've been going with two lines, and sometimes with four D," Unger says. "There's no excuses, but once we get a full line-up back, we'll be even stronger."

No excuses necessary - you're in first place.

This weekend Tulsa faces conference foe Fort Worth and arch-rival Oklahoma City, both at home.

MCDONALD LAUDS KRALJ: Lubbock coach Bill McDonald makes a bold prediction about rookie winger Matic Kralj.

"If things go right, he could be the first guy drafted out of this league," the veteran bench boss says.

Kralj, 19, played Tier II in Brockville, Ontario last season, but was not selected as an overager by the OHL. He found his way to Lubbock thanks to fellow Slovenian Blaz Emersic, a second-year pro who's currently the Kings' leading scorer (4Gs, 5As).

"I think I'm getting more experience here, and there are better players here," Kralj told the Lubbock "Avalanche-Journal." "In juniors, there are great players, too, just not as many."

The Cotton Kings have a third Slovenian in goaltender Jure Penko, a 2000 Nashville 10th round draft pick. Penko attended the Predators' rookie camp, but with 1999 No. 1 Brian Finley already working in the ECHL, got his ticket punched for Texas.

"They're all great kids," McDonald says of the trio. "They work hard, and they're a pleasure to coach."

SIEVE-ON-SIEVE ACTION: On Oct. 29, the C-Kings gave 3,000 school children attending a special 11 a.m. contest a 6-0 win over Amarillo, plus an added bonus - goalie fight.

Sean DeGagne, pulled from the crease with the Gorillas trailing 4-0, got things going by bumping Lubbock captain Dave MacIntyre as he headed for the bench.

That sent Mike Brusseau flying across the red line. Once the requisite fighting majors and game misconducts were handed out, Penko came in and preserved the shutout.

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