Niagara IceDogs star defenceman Dougie Hamilton and defence partner Shayne Rover (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)
The Niagara IceDogs had just finished polishing off another road win and coach-GM Marty Williamson was calling out his two stars for a defensive lapse that led to their foe's only goal. In a nutshell, that might illuminate the difference between the IceDogs of a year ago who thought they could go to the MasterCard Memorial Cup and this iteration who very well will.
Much has has been made of the IceDogs boosting five members of Team Canada and 12 NHL draft picks and Mark Visentin becoming the OHL's first goalie to have 10 shutouts in a season. What's been underplayed is how Niagara, which could get into 1980s-style shootouts and do quite well, is clamping down on opponents. Since Williamson went all in at the trade deadline to add a fifth member of Team Canada, defenceman Jamie Oleksiak, they have allowed four goals in a game exactly twice. And one of those instances was the Connor Crisp game.
"When we're at our at our best, our offence is coming from the defence," Williamson said after the 5-1 win in Ottawa on Mar. 9 that wrapped up Eastern Conference race a week early. "They're starting to get it, they still struggle... I got Dougie [Hamilton] in the corner and Stromer [star centre Ryan Strome] making a mistake like we did on the goal, big mistake, I was pretty mad at them, but they came back from it.
"When you play good defence, you're not a chase team and you're coming from a position of strength. When you're a chase team, you're not going to create turnovers, you're going to take penalties. When we're attacking them from the right position and when we're on our game, I think we're a damn good team."
It is tempting to think the 'Dogs could pull a Moses Malone by rolling through the East in, "Fo', fo', fo'." (Hey, the less their not-exactly-rocking playoff theme song is played, the better.) Of course, two seasons ago in Barrie Williamson had a stacked team who went 12-1 while winning the East and was swept by the Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique-led Windsor Spitfires in the final. It might be better for Niagara to face some more adversity. They have been been the beast of the East since the last of their drafted players trickled back from the big league, going 39-9-0-1 since mid-November.
Here are capsules of the Eastern Conference series. Play begins Thursday.
Season series: Brampton 4-3-1-0. Odds favour: Brampton 54%. Prediction: Sudbury in 7.
Why Sudbury should win: The Wolves are the heart pick and the Battalion are the head pick, admittedly. It easier to picture the Battalion winning. They play a more mistake-free game. They boast two reliable goalies. They can also take advantage of a Sudbury penalty kill that was second-worst in the league during the regular season. Coach Stan Butler's team seems better built for the playoffs.
The Wolves are starting to get back to health. League scoring champion Michael Sgarbossa also had 10 points in the last five Battalion-Wolves games after being blanked in their first three tilts. Toronto Maple Leafs third-rounder Joshua Leivo, overage winger Andrey Kuchin and 26-goal scorer Derek Schoenmakers (with Mississauga last season), have a good history in the playoffs.
Coach Trent Cull's team can win if they get a split of the opening two games in Brampton and feed off the playoff crowd for the next two. They would need to play tighter in the defensive zone than they typically have throughout much of the season, although injuries contributed to that inconsistency.
They play a fun-to-watch speed game that can resemble basketball with skates and sticks. Both the 4 vs. 5 and 3 vs. 6 series can stand in for hockey's culture war between emphasizing skill and speed as opposed to out-systeming opponents. Consider this a pick made on general principle.
How Brampton could win: The Battalion will advance if they stymie Sgarbossa and if Sudbury wears down physically after 4-5 games off being bounced around the boards by Cameron Wind, Zach Bell and their blueline buddies.
Brampton is the ultimate what-you-see-is-what-you-get team. They put the puck behind the opposing defence, stay disciplined in their own zone and try to turn every game into a grim Dickensian struggle. Toronto Maple Leafs pick Sam Carrick and undrafted Barclay Goodrow give them a pair of good finishers around the net, while Matej Machovsky is reliable in goal. If they can play the series on their terms, they'll win.
Season series: Mississauga 4-2-0-0 (two wins in 4-on-4 overtime). Odds favour: Barrie 62%. Prediction: Barrie in 6.
Why Barrie should win: Forget about Tanner Pearson being out for the season. The Colts' X factor is actually Ivan Telegin, who's had 34 points in 22 post-world junior games.
Five other Colts had at least 50 points in the regular season, so coach-GM James Boyd's Majors simply won't be able to stifle one Barrie line. There should be a lot of one-goal games, but the Dale Hawerchuk-coached Colts will win if they can create an advantage in possession time and bury their chances. Between Winnipeg Jets picks Telegin and Mark Scheifele, capable secondary scorers such as Colin Behenna, Steven Beyers and Zach Hall and bruising Boston Bruins choice Anthony Camara, they are deep enough up front. Goalie Mathias Niederberger has also looked better during the second half of his first North American season. Barrie can win provided it stays out of the penalty box, pardon the cliché.
How Mississauga could win: Either Brandon Maxwell, whom two OHL teams decided they could do better than in goal than and whom the Colorado Avalanche declined to sign last spring, is finally playing to potential or the Majors' system of collapsing toward the goal has made him go from good to great. However it's thin-sliced, the Majors have avoided the usual post-Memorial Cup malaise and become a tough out for the playoffs.
The big question is whether they can sustain it well enough to beat a good team four times. They have a shot with Maxwell (2.92 average, .913 save percentage) playing in front of a back line led by Toronto Maple Leafs first-round pick Stuart Percy and three others who were around for last spring's playoff run. The holdovers up front, Riley Brace, Jamie Wise and Mika Partenen, would likely all have to break out big-time offensively to give the Majors a shot.
Season series: Ottawa 7-0-1-0. Odds favour: Ottawa 72%. Prediction: Ottawa in 6.
Why Ottawa should win: Cutting to the quick, Ottawa has the two best attackers in this series in Tyler Toffoli and Shane Prince, whose 190 points were the most of any teammates in the OHL. Potential top-10 NHL pick Cody Ceci is the best defenceman. World junior championship all-star goaltender Petr Mrazek is rested and has a way of being a peak performer when he has something to prove. The world junior was a prime example of that, since he was finally getting to play after two years of being denied by Czech hockey politics.
This is one of those times, since he surely took last year's sweep against Sudbury to heart. There is plenty of reason to wonder if the whole Ottawa team internalized that hurt and turned it to hunger. They have looked beatable while going just 6-6-0-2 across the last month of the season, but they have owned Belleville all season.
How Belleville could win: The Bulls played .659 hockey with Malcolm Subban in goal and .440 when he was out with ankle and groin injuries. However, the top draft-year goalie in North America was hardly immune from his team's Barberpole phobia, getting mercy-hooked in two of his three starts vs. the 67's. If he plays as well as he can and the Bulls earn a split games 1 and 2 in Ottawa on Thursday and Friday, there's potential to have the 67's on the run.
The Bulls have have speed and can wear down defenders with likely NHL first-rounder Brendan Gaunce and experienced contributors such as Austen Brassard, Joseph Cramarossa, Luke Judson, recent Pittsburgh Penguins signing Adam Payerl and good Kingston boy Jordan Mayer. Rookie Daniil Zharkov is the wild card.
They should stretch this out longer than the typical 2 vs. 7 matchup but might not have enough firepower or defence to win. Do keep an eye on how Jordan Subban fares in his first post-season.
Vancouver Canucks draft pick Alex Friesen provides Niagara with adequate secondary scoring (OHL Images)
Season series: Tied 1-1-0-0. Odds favour: Niagara 92%. Prediction: Niagara in 4.
Why Niagara should win: There are probably reasons why the IceDogs are not yet classed as a generational team. Team Canada only won the bronze at the world junior championship, so that hurt their profile. There's also the they-play-in-the-East disclaimer.
Like those Spitfires, though, Niagara can ice an entire six-man unit of players with world junior experience with the Ryan Strome-Tom Kühnhackl-Freddie Hamilton first line, Dougie Hamilton and Olesiak on the back end and Visentin in goal. (Hamilton and Oleksiak don't play together, but nor did Ryan Ellis and Cam Fowler in Windsor, so don't spoil a good facile comparison.)
Niagara scored the most goals in the league (289), allowed the fewest (166) and led in both special teams categories (26.8 per cent on the power play, 85.5 per cent penalty kill). They are a force, plain and simple.
How Oshawa could win: They are dangerous if the Good Oshawa — balanced scoring, reasonably good defence and a dialled-in Kevin Bailie in goal — shows up. As Jean-Paul Sartre once said, who you are is what you do. The Generals actions say they are the eighth seed. They can stretch this series out, but beating Niagara four times out of seven is too much to expect.
Granted, Oshawa is an atypical eighth seed who bought instead of selling in January, adding recently signed Winnipeg Jets prospects Julian Melchiori and Memorial Cup-seasoned Matt Petgrave and Geoffrey Schemitsch to their blueline. They also have a cadre of high draft picks up front in power winger Andy Andreoff, captain Boone Jenner, Nicklas Jensen, Lucas Lessio and sniper Christian Thomas. They are scary since they can beat anybody, but also lose to anybody. Oshawa, to have a shot, would need to banish all of its bad habits and hope the IceDogs fall apart like a loosely wrapped shawarma.
Oshawa would have been a good sleeper pick had it earned a matchup with either Barrie or Ottawa. The Gens give up too many power plays (365, third-most in the OHL), though, and they're going against a team with a lights-out power play. A leopard doesn't change its spots at this time of year.
(Odds by Rob Pettapiece.)
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
- Toronto Maple Leafs