Buzzing The Net

Dallas Stars prospect Brett Ritchie a determined IceDog entering OHL final vs. familiar foe London

Dallas Stars second-rounder Brett Ritchie (OHL Images)Brett Ritchie might have an easier time sidestepping one of the psychological pratfalls of playoff hockey.

In a championship series, sometimes it takes one game or the better part of two for the teams vying for a trip to the MasterCard Memorial Cup to get a hate on for each other. There isn't the same amount of friction between teams who only play twice a year, as the Niagara IceDogs and London Knights did this year, as there are between conference rivals during the early rounds. In the IceDogs' case, though, it's worth noting that Ritchie is both an X-factor in the series and the IceDog with the most history playing London. Ritchie spent two-plus seasons with the Sarnia Sting, the team which toils in the big-market Knights' long shadow in the Western Conference.

"In Sarnia that was one of their biggest rivals because we're so close, right down the 402 [highway]," the Dallas Stars second-rounder says. "I'm on a different team but there's still that rivalry, that blood that I shared with my teammates when I was in Sarnia. It's going to be cool to play them [London'.

"I guess I know a lot more about them than most of the guys on our team because in Sarnia we played them six times a year, I know their defence and forwards fairly well. I'll try to pass that to our team. But as the series goes on, things will change and we'll have to adapt."

IceDogs coach-GM Marty Williamson paid big to add the 6-foot-3, 190-pound power winger in January. Ritchie cost four OHL priority selection choices, including three second-rounders spread out from 2012 through '14. But Ritchie has carved out a niche as a two-way forward who supports the team's scorers. His playoff scoring stats are modest (two goals, eight points in 15 games), but Ritchie has opened space for his linemates. He was the game's first star last Friday when Niagara sealed the Eastern Conference title by edging Ottawa 3-2 even though he didn't record a point.

"He brings size and speed and strength," Williamson says. "He's done a fantastic job for us, he played with [Alex Friesen] and Aggie [captain Andrew Agozzino] for a while, he's played with Ship [Steven Shipley] and Theo [Mitchell Theoret] for a while. We needed him to step up and kill penalties for us in the final game against Ottawa after we lost Myles Doan. He's done a great job since coming over and really fits in well."

'Winning battles'

London is deeper and has a higher motor collectively than the three teams Niagara went 12-3 against while rolling through the East. Ritchie will be central to the IceDogs' plan to keep the Knights from turning the series into a transition game, since he can grind on foes in the corners and along the boards.

"You can't make this game easy for London or we're not going to beat them," Williamson says. "We have to have guys who win battles in corners and keep some sustained pressure in their zone. If we can turn it into more of 'play in their zone, then play in our zone' kind of half-court offence game, he's one of those guys who can do it for us.

"Brett really complements our guys well with winning battles and taking pucks to the net."

It's not like Ritchie's focus on playing a team-first, think-defence game is all new. Last season in Sarnia he managed to lead the team's forwards with a -1 plus/minus rating whilst playing for a ninth-place team which allowed a whopping 319 goals. He's getting more attention for his D and team play now since it's part of a winning effort with a contender.

That also ties in well with Ritchie's prospects at the next level. Getting his nose dirty will be a prerequisite to play in the NHL.

"When you're on a team that's not having successful year, obviously your plus/minus is not going to be good," the Orangeville, Ont., native says. "But I've always focused on my defence first. You don't want to be labelled as an offensive guy. At the next level, that's one of the key factors. Marty Williamson, our coach, preaches that a lot. We like to think of ourselves as the best defensive team in the league.

"If you're just an offensive player, especially at my size, you're not going to go very far," he adds.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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