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."
The Marty Williamson-coached IceDogs needed the first third of the season to shake off the so-called NHL hangover after having several players earn extended stays at pro camps. The watershed point might have been Nov. 20 in Ottawa, when Visentin got hooked after letting in 3-of-4 shots in a loss that left them at 11-10-0-2. Since then, they have won 44 of 55 games. Whether it's Strome, either Hamilton sibling, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Tom Kühnhackl or several others, they can burn teams in countless ways.
"Which line would you shut down?" Ottawa coach-GM Chris Byrne said when asked Wednesday if he'd devise a shutdown line for the Game 1 on Friday (7 p.m. ET, Sportsnet.)
"They're a deep team. Their lines are spread out. Their so-called fourth line has scored some big goals in the playoffs. The matchups are going to be interesting and Marty will get first crack at those in his rink on Friday."
(1) Niagara IceDogs (47-18-0-3, 97 points, beat Oshawa 4-2 and Brampton 4-0) vs. (2) Ottawa 67's (40-20-5-3, 86 pts, beat Belleville 4-2 and Barrie 4-3)
Season series: Niagara 3-1-0-0. Odds favour: Niagara 83 per cent. Prediction: Niagara in 5.
How they match up
Veteran leadership: Perhaps no major junior team east of Kennewick, Wash., has got more from its overage trio this season than the IceDogs. Agozzino, Friesen and rugged right wing David Pacan have combined for 38 post-season points after tallying 223 in the regular season. Being fifth-year IceDogs has made Agozzino and Friesen touchstones for IceDogs fans. But 6-foot-3, 205-pound Pacan, a former NCAA player at Vermont, might be the biggest handful for opponents.
"Friesen and Aggie have done for all this year and what they've done for this and this community has been," Williamson says. "Pacan has really been unsung. He's had a great playoff run and has scored some big goals against Oshawa and Brampton."
The 67's have run with two overages, captain Zanetti and No. 2 centre Mike Cazzola, throughout the playoffs. Many of their mainstays, including leading scorers Toffoli and Shane Prince, designated bruiser Smith, goalie Petr Mrazek and perhaps potential top-10 pick NHL pick Cody Ceci, could be in their final days as juniors.
"You look for those guys to be calming influences in the room," Byrne says. "We're in a situation where we've had a lot of guys be here for 3-4-5 years. I think that continuity and guys buying in to what we do is a key to why we're still playing."
Perhaps they can be slow to feel a sense of urgency, but they have pulled together when pushed. Advantage: Niagara.
Goaltending: Visentin will go down in junior hockey annals as the netminder who was voted OHL goaltender of the year and broke a 63-year-old record for shutouts in a season, but not in the same year. The two-time Team Canada 'tender had some off nights in the first round vs. Oshawa but bore down in the second-round sweep of Brampton. The 20-year-old has a 2.25 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in the post-season.
"I think we just have to pepper him with shots and wear him down," Zanetti said. "We're going to have to go hard to the net and crash and bang."
Mrazek, AKA Mrazzle Dazzle, has a 2.41 average and .925 save percentage in 13 playoff games. He has shown a propensity for letting in the long shot during the playoffs. At the same time, he has a high peak, as the hockey-watching world saw when he nearly led the Czech Republic into the semifinal of the IIHF under-20 championship in January.
"The garbage goals from around within five feet of the net are going to be big," Agozzino says. "We've seen him play top of his game in the world juniors so we know what to expect from him." Advantage: Niagara.
Special teams: The IceDogs led the OHL in power play (26.8%) and penalty killing (85.5%) during the regular season and remained efficient at both through the first two rounds. Ottawa has the playoffs' best PK at 93%, bearing in mind that was built against a Belleville team with the league's worst power play in the regular season and the banged-up Barrie Colts in the second round.
"Special teams are a big part of the playoffs," Agozzino says. "We've been at the top on penalty kill and power play all year long and we're going to continue to work on that." Advantage: Niagara.
Why Niagara should win: The IceDogs are deeper, plain and simple. Williamson, who had a high-octane team two seasons ago in Barrie which was swept in the OHL final, has strove to link his team's scoring punch with sound defence. The tone of their Brampton series, where they slowly dismantled a tightly structured, well-coached Battalion team, presumably helped them buff out any nicks and dents in their game. They are also next to impossible to beat in the cosy Jack Gatecliff Arena, the site for games 1, 2, 5 and 7.
"We like to use our whole roster, top to bottom," Williamson says. "We take pride in our defence, but we also feel like we have a lot of offensive talent on this team and we need to use it."
How Ottawa could win: Ottawa can take its time getting motivated and sometimes plays to the level of its opponents, but it doesn't lack for talent. It's just that it needs everything to break right to down the 'Dogs. That would include having Mrazek stand on his head in goal. Ceci, a 30-minute-a-night defender, will have to overcome tougher forechecking pressure than he's seen yet in these playoffs. The Sean Monahan-Smith-Toffoli line would need to outplay Niagara's top unit, the Strome-Kühnhackl-Freddie Hamilton line.
Ottawa can play a physical game, what with Smith, 6-foot-4 centre Tyler Graovac and Steven Janes up front and the likes of Michal (Big Mike) Cajkovsky, Ceci and Zanetti on the back end. Niagara's rink shouldn't hold as much terror for them as it would for some other junior teams. They will have to do that while limiting the penalties; on average they've faced 4.4 penalty kills during the playoffs. That is too many to give the IceDogs.
"We're going to go with a no-hitter in the St. Catharines series," Byrne cracks. "No, I'm just kidding. Obviously, being physical in the playoffs and not taking penalties is key. For us, to do that will be really important."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.