Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Niagara IceDogs’ undoing: Michael Houser, Hunter Hockey, fatigue and frustrationBy series' end, the pattern was predictable with the Niagara IceDogs. Move the puck fruitlessly around the perimeter of the London Knights' zone for long stretches, only to watch the London Knights score.

The more deserving Knights won the Ontario Hockey League championship on Friday, winning 2-1 to wrap up a 4-1 win. But the way the IceDogs' dream unravelled — the denouement was when playoff MVP Austin Watson poked in the first goal just minutes after Niagara's once-vaunted power play couldn't get near the net during a four-minute advantage even with London's shutdown defenceman Jarred Tinordi sitting in the box — will spawn no shortage of theories of why Niagara didn't get it done.

The IceDogs, in a matter of speaking, came in looking like they were too big to fail. Coach-GM Marty Williamson, with 18-year-old stars Ryan Strome (no goals, two assists, minus-6 in the series) and especially defenceman Dougie Hamilton perhaps likely to go to the NHL next season if there's no labour stoppage, built for this season. Niagara was 36-8 since their full lineup reconvened after the world junior, where five IceDogs wore the Maple Leaf for Canada. They had seven other NHL drafted picks and a prolific overage trio of Andrew Agozzino, Alex Friesen and David Pacan.

So how did something so good go bad so fast?

Some would put it down to the younger Knights being hungrier. Or evoke Mark Visentin's role in Canada falling short of the gold medal in the past two world junior championships — an interesting theory since Tinordi and Watson were respectively London's best forward and defender in the series. They were part of U.S. world junior which suffered the embarrassment of playing in the tourney's relegation round. So you throw one player's international track record in his face constantly and ignore others'? That's a little selective.

(Honestly, the player whose world junior experience was the most germane in this series was London's quietly awesome Scott Harrington. Team Canada's defence in Alberta was never the same after Harrington was knocked out with a shoulder injury against the U.S. on New Year's Eve. Harrington was a linchpin for London in this series and quite possibly the month he spent as teammates with Strome, Freddie Hamilton and Dougie Hamilton helped immensely with staying a move ahead of the IceDogs.)

Or they might label Williamson, whose Barrie Colts lost 4-0 to the Adam Henrique- and Taylor Hall-led Windsor Spitfires two seasons ago, as a coach who can't win the big one. That will be inevitable.

The reality is it's never one thing but a combination of several factors. London's triumph probably boiled down to four overarching factors.

Not just a hot goalie

For starters, Houser (1.82 average, .947 save percentage in the series) outplayed Visentin (2.75, .896) by a greater margin than reasonably anticipated. The London  goalie's stats don't do justice to his stolidity between the pipes. It is not just that Houser is proficient, it's that he seldom allows a second shot or loses track of a rebound.

London has much less reason to worry about whether he's on his game than even teams whose goalie has heard his name called on the NHL draft floor. One could count on one hand the number of times he appeared to have lost sight of the puck went after it hit him. Tom Kühnhackl's tally that gave Niagara hope of a third-period comeback tonight was one such rare instance.

Houser wasn't the whole series, but without him, does London coach-GM Mark Hunter's system succeed? The Knights were outshot 187-149 in the series which rounds off to 34-27 for a 60-minute game. The margin gets even wider when one factors just the shots Watson put himself in front of, never mind how many the Nashville Predators prospect's teammates blocked. London was able to pack defenders in tight around Houser and just let Niagara fire away to no avail.

John Matisz had to coin a new word for London's almost anti-style: "drudging."

Mewl about what it does for the entertainment value, but it worked. Until hockey adopts some sort of Pierre Pagé rule that forces teams to keep the slot clear, it's going to persist in hockey.

Mark Hunter got his charges to play Hunter Hockey almost flawlessly. Since the Knights' head honcho and Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter were on the same bench until this fall, it's easy to connect London's M.O. to what NHL playoff hockey has come to this spring. To each her/his own, of course. Move the calendar ahead a month and what Roy MacGregor said about the Stanley Cup playoffs — "a tournament run largely in reverse, with the climax and greatest interest in Round 1 followed by a sliding war of attrition that culminates in June with exhausted players and weary fans just wishing it would get over with so summer could start" — could easily have applied to this slogfest of a series.

Of course, 9,400 people in London would rightly disagree with that. For London and most inclined to pragmatism, to quote London folk hero Matt Rupert, is "all about grinding it out, getting the puck in deep and finishing your checks." Stereotyping London in such fashion ignores the bursts of offensive flair they received from the likes of Tampa Bay Lightning first-rounder Vladislav Namestnikov, Max Domi and speedster Andreas Athanasiou.

Much of the scholarship devoted to Hunter Hockey's efficacy concludes that it can only work in the short run. The way Mark Hunter and his staff prepare, though, put the lie and damned lie to statistics, at least in this context and this point of the calendar. Consider this a mea culpa, but none of those analyses really account for fatigue, the attrition thing.

Fatigue factor

By championship series time, teenaged juniors have been playing since August. On top of a 68-game schedule, there's NHL development camps in July and September, events like the NHL RDO camp which are nothing more than a contrived media opportunity, Super Series games and the world junior. That's possibly too much for teenaged bodies to handle. Perhaps it's post-hoc to bring this up now, but small wonder that Niagara was so flat and snakebitten.

Of course, the season was long for each team. Credit Hunter and his crew for knowing how to mitigate the fatigue. Their game wasn't based so much on being fine and precise, but keeping a grim sense of purpose. That's probably easier to do when tired than play an offensive game.

That all boiled over into frustration on Niagara's end. It's a stretch and a half to say that was came out in all sorts of weird ways or accounts for pucks that bounced over sticks in scoring areas or mistakes. Sometimes bad breaks just happens.

The IceDogs had their share in Game 5. They should have been ahead after a period, but Mitchell Theoret hit the post after a perfect pass out by Dallas Stars second-round choice Brett Ritchie. They could not cash while Tinordi, with all his bulk, reach and surly disposition, was off for four minutes after cutting Steven Shipley with his stick. When Watson, the key cog at the top of London's penalty kill, got a penalty two minutes after his goal, Pacan got a power play-cancelling tripping penalty.

The coup de grace was just totally random. Early in the third period, young defenceman Luke Mercer blew a tire and fell down while defending a 2-on-2. Namestnikov rushed through the vacated area and fed 19-year-old Seth Griffith for the winning goal.

Who knows why exactly that happens. One can imagine Marty Williamson, a competitive guy, losing sleep over it. The Knights can sleep easy. That's the beauty of coming out on top. No one asks how when the answer is, "Scoreboard!"

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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