Niagara IceDogs shedding the label of OHL underachievers and underdogs

Niagara IceDogs shedding the label of OHL underachievers and underdogs

It was only two months ago that the boiling point was reached within the Niagara IceDogs’ dressing room.

Head coach and general manager Marty Williamson had put together a veteran team he figured was capable of competing for an Ontario Hockey League championship. Some of the time the IceDogs fulfilled that vision. Others, they were dropping games to the league’s bottom feeders.

Williamson grew tired of the act.

“I told them one of the worst labels I believe a team can have is underachieving,” he said. “I told them that’s what we are. We’re an underachieving team. It hit home with some guys.”

Has it ever.

Highlighted by their second-round sweep of the Kingston Frontenacs - the Eastern Conference’s top seed- the IceDogs have been arguably the best team three weeks into the OHL playoffs. They’ve needed just nine games to get to the conference final, where they await Williamson’s old team, the Barrie Colts. Barrie also swept its series against North Bay.

The IceDogs are finally looking like the team Williamson had envisioned. Based on their yo-yo act throughout much of the regular season, it’s a welcome change.

Alex Nedeljkovic of the Niagara IceDogs. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images
Alex Nedeljkovic of the Niagara IceDogs. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic felt the series against Kingston represented their best four-game stretch of the season. So as the IceDogs prepare to face the Colts next week, they don’t feel like the team that finished 12 points back of their division rivals.

“That’s what you get for being the lower seed – you get placed as the underdog. If we’re going to have to play that role, we’ll play that role,” Nedeljkovic said. “If it’s going to make it seem like every playoff win is a shocker, then so be it. But to us, a series win is not a shocker. A series win is something that we expect.”

It might not have been expected two months ago. And it certainly wouldn’t have been expected the way things were going in the fall.

Williamson swung a massive deal on Dec. 5, acquiring Nedeljkovic and Josh Wesley, two Carolina Hurricanes prospects, from the Flint Firebirds for a package consisting of goaltender Brent Moran and five draft picks – including three second-rounders. The chips were pushed to the middle.

However, the team was anything but cohesive or strong.

“Going back to when I first got to Niagara, we were still a good team but mentally I don’t think we were as confident,” Nedeljkovic said. “I don’t think we believed that in a low-scoring game we were going to be able to come out on top on a consistent basis. You could in the locker room there was this iffy feeling, this hesitant feeling.”

The IceDogs are a team loaded with talent. Half the team – 10 players – is either drafted or signed by NHL organizations. From first-round NHL picks Brendan Perlini (Arizona) and Josh Ho-Sang (New York Islanders) to overage trade deadline acquisition Stephen Harper, the IceDogs were full of players that took it upon themselves to lead the way to victory.

“We’d go into Hamilton and have five guys on their own page,” Williamson said.            

“It’s a funny team,” he added. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys that care an awful lot. To our detriment, I thought guys played too individualistic during the year.”

That didn’t begin to change until Williamson vented his frustrations in February.

Gradually, players stopped bickering about line combinations and started focusing more on the task at hand. Williamson noticed a significant change late in the season as the IceDogs went on a 6-3-1 run.

Williamson admits he did worry that some of those NHL-affiliated players would start thinking about moving on to the pros if things went sideways early in the playoffs.

However, he credited his leadership group of Nedeljkovic and captains Anthony DiFruscia, Jordan Maletta and Perlini for making sure that didn’t happen.

Nedeljkovic felt the IceDogs were “dominant” in a five-game, opening-round win over Ottawa. They were just as good against the supposed powerhouse Frontenacs thanks to strong defensive play and limiting Kingston’s speed through the neutral zone.

Josh Ho-Sang of the Niagara IceDogs. Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.
Josh Ho-Sang of the Niagara IceDogs. Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.

Ho-Sang has 15 points in the playoffs and has been their best player, according to Williamson. Nedeljkovic, the OHL’s goaltender of the week, posted a .940 save percentage against Kingston.

“It’s scary to play a team that has so much confidence,” he said. “Skill and talent is only going to get you so far. When you’ve got a team that’s working hard and playing with that confidence, it’s something to be afraid of.”

Fourth-seeded Niagara will be in tough against No. 2 Barrie in the Eastern Conference final.

St. Louis Blues prospect Vince Dunn injured his knee in Game 3 against Kingston. Although he is riding a stationary bike, Williamson doesn’t expect him to return until towards the end of the series.

The Colts also have their share for offensive talent from Calgary Flames pick Andrew Mangiapane, San Jose Sharks prospect Kevin Labanc and undrafted overager Justin Scott, whose 14 playoff goals lead the OHL.

In net, the Colts have someone who can match Nedeljkovic’s resume. Mackenzie Blackwood was Canada’s goaltender at the World Junior Hockey Championship, while Nedeljkovic was in net for the Americans.

The goal is obviously to beat the Colts. But even if the IceDogs don’t, they’ve come a long way from where they were just weeks ago.

“They don’t want to be labelled underachievers. Losing one game so far in the playoffs, they’ve done a good job of shedding that,” Williamson said. “After I called them underachievers, I told them that I believed in this team. I really do. I put it together. I think I have the pieces. I’ve been around long enough to know what wins in the playoffs.”