Facing each other for the privilege of going to the Ontario Hockey League final represents coming full circle for several of the Niagara IceDogs and Ottawa 67's.
On March 31, 2009, a rivalry arguably took form when the IceDogs scored a Game 7 overtime win at the Ottawa Civic Centre in what turned out to Hockey Hall of Fame coach Brian Kilrea's final game behind the 67's bench. Incredibly for a level of hockey where change is the constant, the three IceDogs — current captain Andrew Agozzino with assists from Alex Friesen and Freddie Hamilton — who produced the winner 13 seconds into overtime are now stars for Niagara. Franchise goalie Mark Visentin was on the bench as a backup, while present-day 67's captain Marc Zanetti and first-line wingers Tyler Toffoli and Dalton Smith absorbed a tough lesson as rookies. That might be as good a spot as any to set up a series where Niagara, with 12 NHL draft picks, including a half-dozen with world junior championship experience, is a rested and reloaded on-paper favourite.
"It was Killer's last year, so it was definitely a heartbreaker for me," Zanetti says. "So my main goal is to go into Niagara and try to steal a win there in the first two games. They're a really good home team. They hardly ever lost at home all season [going 25-7-0-2 at the Jack Gatecliff Arena]. I think the main focus there is to put every puck on net. Visentin is a world-class goalie and we have to pepper him with shots. But again, they have a strong team and I can't wait to play."
The IceDogs franchise, who were in just their second season in St. Catharines in 2009, have come a long way since. They've had three NHL first-round picks — Visentin, ace centre Ryan Strome and star defenceman Dougie Hamilton. They also had a coming-of-age last season when they reached the Eastern final against Mississauga, which stoked the fire for this season and this series.
"It's been a pretty good rivalry between the two of us [Niagara and Ottawa]," Agozzino says. "Being the top teams last year and this year, we were fighting for position. The rivalry's going to be fantastic throughout the series.
"Last year it [the third round] was a new process to most of us," Agozzino adds. "This year there's a lot veteran players and older players who have been through it."Read More »from Niagara IceDogs favoured to beat rival Ottawa 67′s: an OHL Eastern Conference final preview