Ice Dogs, 67's renew rugged series of '09

BERNIE PUCHALSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:35 PM ET

ST. CATHARINES — The Niagara IceDogs are expecting much the same as last season’s playoffs when they battled in a hard-fought, first-round series with the Ottawa 67’s.

The best-of-seven series opens with games Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (2 p.m.) in Ottawa, followed by games in St. Catharines next Tuesday and Thursday nights.

“We’ve played these guys fairly well this year and you will see a very similar series to last year,” IceDogs head coach Mike McCourt said. “They have a good forward group — some size and some skilled guys up there — and I think their back end is good.

“Their top four guys are solid and I believe we will see (goalie Chris) Perugini the first game.”

When playing the 67’s, it’s difficult for any team to focus on shutting down just a few players.

“He has his scoring spread out over three lines,” McCourt said. “(Cody) Lindsay has had a breakout year for them and (Tyler) Toffoli has been good, and he has those two guys together. And then he has (Ryan) Martindale with (Thomas) Nesbitt and he’s had a solid year as a 19 year old.

“And then he has (Anthony) Nigro with (Corey) Cowick. They’re a very balanced team and we’re going to have to have all our guys going.”

One major difference from 2009 to 2010 is how the IceDogs entered the playoffs. Last year, the team staggered into the playoffs, going 4-10-1-1 over its final 14 regular-season games, but this year the team has been playing consistent hockey since the New Year. In 2010, the team is 15-12-0-3.

“We’ve played our best hockey in the second half,” McCourt said. “It’s part of the whole process and those younger guys have come along and are a lot more acclimated with the league. It has been good to thicken our skin a little bit and get us playoff ready.”

The team has been particularly sharp at Jack Gatecliff Arena, going 10-3-0-1 since an 8-7 home loss to Erie Dec. 31.

“I don’t know if I can pinpoint it exactly, but it is an adjustment for teams coming in here,” McCourt said. “You always have to factor in the size of the rink and certainly our guys enjoy playing at home with the atmosphere and fan support.

“We said after Christmas that we needed to protect home ice and I thought we did a great job of that down the stretch.”

Andrew Agozzino, the team’s captain and leading scorer, feels the IceDogs’ turnaround came as a result of a change in dressing room chemistry when Chris DeSousa and Jay Gilbert left the team after a Nov. 29 game, demanding to be traded. Niagara lost its first four games after the pair left and then went 17-15-0-3 the rest of the way.

“After everything this team has been through, we came together really well,” Agozzino said. “Once the situation we had earlier in the year was over and dealt with, the chemistry was just terrific. The way the guys rallied around and became one group in there was just awesome.”

Agozzino felt the team could have gone either way.

“You could either take it one way or the other, and we used it more as a springboard than taking it as a negative. We realized there was 20 guys who wanted to be here and with 20 guys wanting to be here, there’s no limit to what you can do.”

What the IceDogs did down the stretch has the team feeling good heading into the playoffs.

“We’ve come a long way this year and with each game our confidence has grown. We’ve played really well down the stretch and we have nothing but confidence going into the playoffs,” Agozzino said.

If the two teams are tied 2-2 after next Thursday’s fourth game in St. Catharines, the final three games are scheduled for Sunday in Ottawa, Monday in St. Catharines and then back to Ottawa Tuesday. With that much travel and that many games in such a short time frame, depth could play an important role in the series.

“At this time of year, a lot of it you run on adrenaline and hunger, and the travel schedule is the same for both teams,” McCourt said. “Certainly, depth will play into it and we will have to get contributions from everybody.”

That depth will be aided by the IceDogs finally have a full roster. The only injured player, Johnson Andrews, is ready to start the playoffs.

“To add bodies at this time of year is really important instead of getting thinner,” McCourt said. “We will need them the way the playoff grind goes.

“Guys sacrifice and you get bumps and bruises over the course of the playoffs.”

Having a full roster for the first time in a long while also gives McCourt the option of inserting and deleting players, depending on who is playing well.

“It’s always a luxury to have someone to put in if someone isn’t going. This time of year, healthy competition is a good thing and it’s something we’ve had all year. We’ve had guys push each other in practice and it has carried over into games.”

The IceDogs will head to Ottawa Thursday morning.

“There will be some quality bonding time and that will be good for the guys. This group is tight and we enjoy playing on the road,” McCourt said.

Ottawa ready for battle

No one needs to tell the Ottawa 67’s not to take the Niagara IceDogs lightly despite the teams’ disparity in the standings.

Last year, Ottawa finished 24 points ahead of Niagara in the standings, only to lose its first-round playoff series in seven games to the upstart IceDogs.

This year, the points disparity between seventh-place Niagara and second-place Ottawa is a “mere” 18 points.

“They’ve played very well after Christmas and they’ve been in tight games all the time and I think the games we’ve played against them this year have been back-and-forth games. I’m expecting a long, tough series.” Ottawa head coach Chris Byrne said.

Byrne says Niagara’s style of play gives every team troubles, especially at Jack Gatecliff Arena.

“They’re playing well and we know they’re going to come at us hard.”

There are no secrets on how to beat the IceDogs.

“Do you want the Brian Kilrea quote? You don’t want: ‘Score one more goal than they do?’ ” Byrne said with a laugh.

“For us, if we play our style of game, we’ve been successful. When we get away from what we do well, we’re in trouble. When we work hard and play hard, we’re a tough team to play against and the same could be said for Niagara.”

The 67’s know who they need to shut down if they want to have success against Niagara.

“It doesn’t take long to figure out (Andrew) Agozzino is a pretty good player and (Alex) Friesen, (Freddie) Hamilton and (Reggie) Traccitto on the back end. Twenty goals is a lot of goals for a defenceman in any league. Those are some of their guy keys and definitely (Mark) Visentin has had a good season. But they’ve had other guys who have played well and have had solid seasons.” Byrne said.

Byrne says the scheduling of the end of the series is nothing new for Ottawa.

“It’s tough. We have scheduling problems the first round of the playoffs every year. There’s a farm show in this week, so we don’t skate in our rink this week and then we play the games Friday and Sunday. When we go to Niagara, we have a home show in the entire week. But it’s not an unknown. It’s the same thing every year and it’s one of the things you have to deal with.”

Tale of the Tape

Ottawa 67’s: Enter playoffs on 5-0-1-0 streak. Second in Eastern Conference with a 37-23-5-3 record, including 7-2-1 in the last 10 games. Home record is 23-9-0-2 and road record is 14-14-5-1.

Niagara IceDogs: Seventh in Eastern Conference with 26-34-2-6 record, including 5-4-0-1 record in last 10 games. Home record is 18-13-1-2 and road record is 8-21-1-4.

Ottawa’s local content: Former Niagara IceDog Andrew Merrett; Cody Ceci, son of Denis Morris grad and former CFLer Parri Ceci.

Ottawa’s leading scorers: Cody Lindsay 39-43-82; Tyler Toffoli 37-42-79; Anthony Nigro 16-46-62; Ryan Martindale 19-41-60; Thomas Nesbitt 33-24-57.

Niagara’s leading scorers: Andrew Agozzino 37-29-66; Alex Friesen 23-37-60; Freddie Hamilton 25-30-55; Reggie Traccitto 20-18-38; Andrew Shaw 11-25-36.

Ottawa’s top goalie: Petr Mrazek, 12-9-0-1, .905 save percentage, 3.00 G.A.A.; Chris Perugini, 25-14-5-2, .905 save percentage, 3.07 G.A.A.

Niagara’s top goalie: Mark Visentin, 24-26-0-5, .911 save percentage; 2.99 G.A.A.

Ottawa’s NHL picks: LW Nigro, sixth round, 155th overall by St. Louis in 2008; D Tyler Cuma, first round, 23rd overall by Minnesota in 2008; D Julien Demers, fifth round, 146th overall by San Jose in 2008; LW Corey Cowick, sixth round, 160th overall by Ottawa in 2009.

Niagara’s NHL picks: None.

Ottawa players in NHL mid-term rankings: RW Toffoli, 22nd-ranked skater; C Martindale, 24th-ranked skater; LW Dalton Smith, 66th-ranked skater; Mrazek, 26th-ranked goalie.

Niagara players in NHL mid-term rankings: Visentin, eighth-ranked goalie; C Hamilton, 102nd-ranked skater.

Previous meetings: 5-3 Niagara Sept. 25; 2-1 Ottawa in a shootout Nov. 15; 3-2 Niagara Nov. 28; 5-2 Ottawa Feb. 28.

Top IceDogs vs. Ottawa: Agozzino 2-2-4; Traccitto 1-2-3; Michael Hasson 2-0-2; Friesen and Johnson Andrews 1-1-2.

Top 67’s vs. Niagara: Nesbitt 4-2-6; Nigro and Toffoli 1-2-3; Martindale 0-3-3; Smith 2-0-2; Lindsay 1-1-2.

Niagara’s goalies vs Ottawa: Visentin 2-1-1, .932 save percentage, 2.50 G.A.A.

Ottawa’s goalies vs Niagara: Perugini 2-1, .923 save percentage, 2.64 G.A.A,; Mrazek, 0-1 in two games, .922 save percentage, 2.35 G.A.A.

Head-to-head powerplays: Niagara 2-14; Ottawa 4-20.

Head-to-head scoring by periods: Niagara 5-2-4-0-0=11; Ottawa 3-3-5-0-1=12.

bpuchalski@stcatharinesstandard.ca


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