March 28, 2014
Zach Bell's season-ending broken leg looms large over a busy night. Niagara has pushed North Bay's back to the wall, while overtime was once again the Oshawa Generals' time in a series clincher and the Peterborough Petes and Sudbury Wolves kept elimination at bay. On with the post-game questions:
London 4 Windsor 3 (Knights win 4-0) — How will the Knights match up in the second round without Bell, and without suspended goalie Anthony Stolarz? London was 15-2 during the six-week span when Jake Patterson replaced Stolarz during his recovery and rehab after suffering a grisly skate cut on Jan. 17. The 19-year-old Paterson (3.15 average/.897 save pct. over 39 games) has always been considered a de facto starter, but certainly gives opponents more net to look at than the 6-foot-6 Stolarz.
The Knights are likely to get top-seeded Guelph in the next round. Patterson started in a pair of London losses to the Storm. He got a win in relief during a November game when coach Dale Hunter threw him to replace a scuffling Stolarz early in the third period, stopping 15-of-15 shots as London rallied to a 6-5 overtime win.
While it wouldn't be asked this way, how much does this series affect the Spitfires' image? Junior hockey has the same inevitable law as show business — what goes up, must come down. Except for Bon Jovi, who's been consistently popular for a quarter century. KISS also still packs 'em in. Ditto Aerosmith. Shut up.
Windsor would have acquitted itself better if Tampa Bay Lightning first-rounder Slater Koekkoek and fellow D-man Trevor Murphy had not sustained season-ending injuries. Those losses rendered a Spits team that leaned a lot on its defence, and an attack centred around Josh Ho-Sang and Brady Vail, too thin to be a tough out. That should be kept in mind before anyone makes too much of the fact that the franchise that won consecutive Memorial Cups in 2009 and '10 hasn't won a single playoff game since Ryan Ellis' graduation. It's a tough end for a four-year Spit such as Vail and the overages Eric Diodati, Remy Giftopoulos and Steven Janes.
Erie 3 Saginaw 2, OT (Otters win 4-1) — What made the difference for the Otters, in the final analysis? Erie, with Dane Fox netting a series-high 12 points and five of his teammates notching five, simply had too many threats for Saginaw to contain. On top of that, over the run of 70-some games, the Otters' frontliners such as Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Connor Brown, the wunderkind Connor McDavid and big-bodied Vancouver Canucks prospect Brendan Gaunce have adopted more of a two-way focus.
Erie might not have been able to ask for more of a push than what it received from Saginaw in a series that had three overtime games and a 4-3 tilt where Fox untied it in the 59th minute. Whether that will make it sharper for the likely second-round showdown against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (who can close out Owen Sound on Friday) is in the eye of the beholder.
Detroit Red Wings-drafted Jake Paterson made 36 saves in his likely final game for the Spirit, whose overages include centres Eric Locke and Kristoff Kontos and defenceman Justin Sefton.
Niagara 5 North Bay 3 (IceDogs lead 3-1, Battalion host Game 5 on Friday) — What moment could almost convince even the most coldly rational person that curses exist? With 8:10 left in the second, North Bay was on the power play whilst trailing 2-1. Tampa Bay second-rounder Dylan Blujus, holding the puck at the point, blew a tire, as the kids say. That gifted Jordan Maletta with 115-foot breakaway that he naturally converted to open a two-goal lead.
The Battalion, which has now lost six of 10 to a Niagara team that had only 57 points in the regular season, never got any closer.
North Bay got the icebreaker, but a bench minor midway through the first let the IceDogs regroup and level on a goal from third-liner Mitchell Fitzmorris. It also, uncharacteristically (as Jordan Ecrit points out), ran into penalty trouble with a Ben Thomson double minor late in the first. That took a toll as Niagara used the power plays to eventually take a lead. Whatever comeback hope North Bay held after Connor Jarvis' tally with 9:41 left in the game made it 4-2 lasted all of about two shifts before Niagara's Carter Verhaeghe-Brendan Perlini-Anthony DiFruscia top line responded in kind.
"It's tough to finish a team’s season, especially when you are an underdog," Williamson told the St. Catharines Standard. "They still have confidence in themselves and if they get a couple of wins under they belts, their confidence goes sky high and we get fragile."
Second-year goalie Brent Moran, with 36 saves, has a 2.25 average and .938 save percentage through four games.
Sudbury 2 Barrie 1 (Colts lead 3-1 and host Game 5 on Friday) — Not closing out a team on the first try, isn't that very unlike Barrie? Yes, that's right; keep talking about the recent past, where the Dale Hawerchuk-coached Colts didn't seal the deal in the 2013 final against London and 2012 second-rounder against Ottawa despite being up 3-1. Yet that's the best way of backing into the main point: Barrie has done this before and the Wolves, who got assists on both goals from Buffalo Sabres prospect Nick Baptiste, have a lot more work to do in order to pull off the rare comeback from a 3-0 series deficit.
Baptiste's helper on the eventual game-winner was a characteristic effort. The 18-year-old headed off a soft clearing attempt, sped into the score zone and then dished to Danny Desrochers, who scored.
Sudbury's Franky Palazzese came up large with 31 saves and no even-strength goals against, while the Wolves seized on getting a 9-6 advantage in power plays during a tightly called game. Trevor Carrick's opening goal came during a 5-on-3 when Aaron Ekblad, Barrie's most important penalty killer (yes, even more so than the goalie) was in the box.
By no means were the Wolves unworthy; the Colts' Mackenzie Blackwood had a skein of saves, including a rebuff of Radek Faksa on a breakaway, that extended the game to the wire. Put this down to Good Sudbury finally showing up on the same night as Bad Barrie. Now that it has lost once, the Colts might have a different focus for its second stab at clinching.
Peterborough 3 Kingston 1 (Frontenacs lead 3-1 and host Game 5 on Friday) — How much will shifting back to the Rogers K-Rock Centre affect each team? The Frontenacs, who were "relentless" in levelling 47 shots at indomitable goalie Andrew D'Agostini, are 5-0 at home vs. Peterborough. That hardly makes it sure thing to finish the job, but it speaks to why there should be a confidence that Kingston will regroup.
D'Agostini was sterling in his long-overdue first playoff win, robbing New Jersey Devils draft pick Ryan Kujawinski, who has one of the league's best shots, from the high slot while the clubs were knotted 1-1 in the third period. Josh MacDonald (1G, +2) scored the winner a few minutes later after sparkplug Greg Betzold induced a turnover and lasered a pass into the goalmouth.
Who was thinking Kingston would be in a 0-0 game after 40 minutes? Anyone who claims to is lying. The Frontenacs allowed 252 regular-season goals and the Petes yielded 263. Odd how the game changes in the playoffs. Petes overage Clark Seymour, an ex-Front, was a force on the blueline as he extended his junior days for at least 24 hours.
Oshawa 4 Mississauga 3 (Generals win 4-0) — Which Gen can use the layoff the most? Likely starting goalie Daniel Altshuller, who allowed 10 goals on 86 shots during Oshawa's three consecutive overtime wins. The 6-foot-3 Carolina Hurricanes selection wasn't necessarily off, and is at no risk whatsoever of losing his job to rookie backup Ken Appleby. It's also a small sample size that might owe to the defensive coverage.
Ultimately, though, a team with aspirations of going to the OHL final requires a sharper performance from a 19-year-old goalie. A week off and some tutorials with a goalie coach could help Altshuller return to his peak form.
Two of the Generals' OT winners in the series came on power plays. In a bitter irony for Missy, the Steelhead in the box when Hunter Smith ended the series on Thursday was Josh Burnside. In Game 3, when Burnside was tripped on a breakaway in double overtime, the officials took a half-measure by calling the tripping penalty rather than a penalty shot. An even-up call 51 seconds later negated the power play.
The Steelheads and their overage centre Brett Foy gave Oshawa a much better push than expected.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.