OSHAWA, Ont. - Before the start of the 2011-12 Ontario Hockey League season, most league pundits expected to see a spring showdown between the Oshawa Generals and Niagara IceDogs in the Eastern Conference final.
The expectations for the teams were high with the IceDogs icing 11 NHL prospects and the Generals boasting eight NHL draft picks. When the season began, however, both teams found themselves mired in a funk. The IceDogs were able to pull themselves out in relatively quick fashion to finish first in the conference with a 47-18-0-3 record. The Generals didn't, making a coaching change and then clawing their way into the final playoff berth with a 31-30-4-3 record.
The great conference-final battle everyone hoped for has instead turned into a first-round matchup. The dramatics and dynamics haven’t really changed with the timing, however, as the two teams are dead even at two games apiece after Generals beat the visiting IceDogs 5-3 on Wednesday night. Game 5 in the best-of-seven series is set for Saturday in St. Catharines.
“I said right from Day One this is the toughest eighth seed I've seen in a long time in this league,” said IceDogs head coach and GM Marty Williamson. “It's one of those things where this could be our toughest match in the whole Eastern Conference, you never know. Right now it’s building that way, we're down to the best two (games) out of three.”
And while the compliment is nice, Oshawa head coach Gary Agnew would rather have seen his team avoid Niagara so early in the postseason.
"Unfortunately for us we drew the best one-seed in the country probably," said Agnew. "Our season was so up and down. We had no consistency, so we deserve to be an eight (seed). This series is like a microcosm of our season, two games where we don’t even stand a chance and then two that we somehow win.
“It’s just the way we are.”
Returning to the Generals from their successful 2010-11 campaign were a number of offensive stars, including NHL prospects Nicklas Jensen, Boone Jenner, Christian Thomas, Lucas Lessio and Andy Andreoff.
"When you can throw Thomas, Lessio, Jenner, Jensen and Andreoff and (Scott) Laughton on the ice, those are six high-end guys in our league,” said Williamson. “I don't know what their problems were (in the regular season)."
After finishing last year with 54 goals and 45 assists for 99 points in 66 games, leading scorer Thomas’s numbers were flat. Sure, he still led the team in the regular season with 34 goals and 33 assists in 55 games, but this was a player projected to challenge for the league scoring title after signing a three-year entry-level contract with the New York Rangers.
“I think I worked on other parts of my game, to be an all-around player,” said Thomas, the second-round pick of the Rangers, 40th overall. “Our team was up and down so I just tried to do the best I could.”
The Generals can be frustrating to watch, because a team that talented shouldn’t have struggled as much as they have. In November, the Generals removed head coach Chris DePiero from the bench to let him focus on his duties as general manager while Agnew, who’s had head coaching gigs in the NHL, AHL and OHL over the past 22 years, was brought in to right the situation. But even under a new coach, they still had their share of trials.
“It’s a simple game, but we have a way of complicating things,” said Agnew.
DePiero, who took the brunt of the blame for the team’s poor performance, still can’t explain his team’s Jekyll and Hyde personality.
“I wish I had the answer, but I don’t,” said DePiero. “It happens, and from our perspective inconsistency is a good word because it’s been up and down, but all we have to look at is where we are at right now and that’s tied 2-2 with Niagara. That’s the best way we can categorize it. I like the way our team has played in the last two games.”
After being outscored 14-3 in the first two games of the series, the Generals decided to start highly-touted rookie goalie Daniel Altshuller in net instead of veteran Kevin Baillie. The switch seemed to pay dividends with the 17-year-old making a combined 90 saves on 97 shots he faced in the last two Oshawa victories.
“He’s done a great job for them,” said Williamson. “That’s been a nice story for them. Baillie’s struggled a bit and he’s come in there and kind of righted their ship, and they have some confidence now.”
And that confidence is growing. In the opening minutes of the third period, with the scored tied 2-2, Jenner sent teammate Andreoff into the IceDogs zone on a breakaway. Alone with time and space on IceDogs goalie Mark Visentin, the Los Angeles Kings prospect missed the net completely and fired it off the glass to the goaltender’s right. But instead of being dejected, the Generals rebounded. A minute later Jenner hit Lessio with a pass, and Lessio, having already scored the opening goal, deked the Canada’s world junior netminder and slipped it past his outstretched pad to give the Generals the lead.
“For us as a team the belief in room is so strong in the room right now that we can beat these guys,” said Lessio, a second-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes. “Playoffs is a new season, the seeds are only numbers to us. It’s not the best team, it’s just the best team on that day in the playoffs.”
The Generals have always had the potential to be the best team, whether or not it’s their day still remains to be seen.