April 13, 2014
New Jersey Devils pick Ben Thomson's short-hander midway through the third created just enough separation for North Bay to exorcise the ghosts of playoffs past against Barrie. The Battalion's 3-2 win wrapped up a six-game Eastern semifinal triumph and the second round of the OHL playoffs.
Erie-Guelph will begin Thursday and North Bay-Oshawa commences the following night, with Generals star Scott Laughton slated to miss the opener due to the final game of a butt-ending suspension. On with the post-game questions:
North Bay 3 Barrie 2 (Battalion win 4-2, will face Oshawa in Eastern final) — What characteristics of the Battalion might have been underestimated before the series? North Bay's trademark traits, penalty killing (91.5 per cent in the playoffs) and defence, were at the forefront. Additionally, though, 18-year-old goalie Jake Smith (2.08/.916) was redoubtable throughout the series except for that anomalous 7-4 loss in Game 4, as he gave up fewer than three goals in every other game. Secondly, perhaps firstly, the Battalion also proved impregnable while on home ice; Barrie scored just twice during three losses at the raucous North Bay Memorial Gardens.
"When a team doesn't give up many chances, you have to make sure you make that timely save and I'm sure that helped out the boys today," Smith told Rogers TV Barrie after making 29 saves on Sunday, including 13 in the first period. "The feeling's unbelievable."
Barrie, which broke on top 83 seconds in on a Garrett Hooey goal, likely deserved to have an early lead after outshooting North Bay 14-5 in the opening 20 minutes. Instead, by the one-minute mark of the second, it was behind after Thomson (2G) redirected in a pass from Nick Paul (1G-1A, +1) on a chance that came about via a Colts cough-up.
"The Colts really came out hard and it was one of those games where we weathered the storm and got some timely scoring and that was the difference in the game," Battalion coach Stan Butler said. "Jake's been great with us in both playoff rounds. He's a real battler. He was probably the difference in this series."
The Battalion were eliminated by the Colts in 2006, '07 and '08, when it played in front of small gatherings of diehards at the Powerade Centre in Brampton. So yes, beating Barrie in its first season in North Bay is a bittersweet irony.
"They've been the best fans in the league for the whole year and we can't wait to play in front of them some more," said captain Barclay Goodrow, who played his first four seasons in Brampton.
Gotta be honest, don't think @OHLBattalion get to this point without the fan support in North Bay, it would be a different story in Brampton
— Ethan Horne (@Ethania7) April 14, 2014
Taking nothing away from the Battalion, were the Colts healthy enough to put forth their best effort? When top NHL draft prospect Aaron Ekblad scored with 12.7 seconds left to give Barrie a chance at a hockey Hail Mary, it seemed like one of the few times the Colts captain unloosed one of his patented centre-point rockets that helped him score 23 goals in the regular season. Ekblad missed the first game of the series due to injury. Over the final five games, he was good, if not world-beating dominant. Ekblad, Detroit Red Wings signing Andreas Athanasiou and overage Mitchell Theoret combined for two goals in the series. That trio combined for 89 in the regular season.
"It's a long stretch here, obviously we wanted to take it farther," an emotional Ekblad told Rogers. "You could say during the season that we beat ourselves a couple times, but every guy in that room did the most he could. It's sad to see our older guys go out like that.
"It's unfortunate it's too little, too late, I looked up at the clock there and saw there was only 12 seconds left [after the goal that made it 3-2]. It was a long season and there was a lot of adversity. I'm proud of every guy in that room."
Save for Game 4, where Brendan Lemieux scored a hat trick during a 7-4 win, the Colts were spartan offensively for much of the series. The absence of injured Joseph Blandisi, who came over at the deadline for Erik Bradford in a swap of 19-year-old attackers, took away some of Barrie's potency. (In another irony, Bradford broke his right femur in the last week of the regular season during a game against none other than the Colts.)
"Every game seemed to be tight," Colts coach Dale Hawerchuk said. "We got the first one [from Hooey] and really wanted to get the second and third and make them start thinking, 'well, we'll just wait to go back home for Game 7.'
"Our power play just really struggled. They're a good penalty-killing team but we didn't cash in when we needed to. Sometimes I think we just kind of rush of it. They get into lanes and sometimes you have to give them a fake, look for the backdoor play. We ended up panicking and shooting it instead of moving the puck. Or we'd move it when we had a chance to shoot. It was just a little bit of decision-making there.
"Joseph Blandisi being out hurt us," Hawerchuk added "We made that deal for him especially for the power play, We missed his patience and his readability. But other teams have those problems, too. You have to find a way."
There were plenty of missed chances the Colts could rue, none more so than in the second period. On a rare odd-man rush against the Battalion, overage Zach Hall made a deft drag-and-dish to the trailing Jake Dotchin with Smith at his mercy. Dotchin is a defenceman, though, and his shot hit the side of the net. One could believe that had some impact since Barrie didn't score again until it was almost over. Fittingly in light of Barrie's power-play trials, Thomson's series winner was a short-handed goal.
"They just battled right to the end," Butler said of Barrie. "You can see why they're such a good hockey team."
Athanasiou, Hall, Theoret and forward Tyson Fawcett will certainly be moving on. The other question concerns whether it will be a fourth year in Barrie or the NHL next year for Ekblad, who has fulfilled the projections that were made when Hockey Canada granted him early admission to the OHL as a 15-year-old in 2011.
"Some of the rookies that came in this year were a lot of inspiration to me," he said. "[Forward Andrew] Mangiapane, he came into camp undrafted and was a rookie of the year nomination."
So North Bay has needed 13 games to get through two rounds, and it's facing Oshawa which has allowed only 13 goals during its eight consecutive wins? How is that going to work out? The fact the North Bay hasn't done it the easy way might be a telling omen. Oshawa's also dealing with the perception it hasn't been pushed. Something will have to give.
"Our character was revealed after we got down 3-1 in that first series with Niagara and it was the same in this series with a tough first two games [in Barrie] in games 3 and 4," Goodrow said. "But we really bounced back."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.