'Confident' 67's face biggest weekend of season

AEDAN HELMER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:18 AM ET

As they prepare for Sunday’s game in Mississauga against the OHL-leading Majors, the 67’s will no doubt be looking to book a return visit, say, around May 19.

That’s when Dave Cameron’s Majors will host the best in junior hockey at the Memorial Cup. While no one wants to look too far ahead, with the 67’s solidly in top spot in the East division and chasing first overall, talk around the team is turning to the playoffs.

“We’ve been working hard, the team has been doing well and we have to keep that up if we want to finish the season strong going into the playoffs,” said leading scorer Tyler Toffoli, who’s riding a league-high 24-game point streak.

Six years ago, when Brian Kilrea’s 67’s last reached the Memorial Cup — in the 2005 tournament that featured Sidney Crosby’s Rimouski Oceanic, Shea Weber’s Kelowna Rockets and Corey Perry’s champion London Knights — Lukas Kaspar and Jamie McGinn were tearing it up in front of goaltender Danny Battochio.

This year’s veteran core, including overagers Cody Lindsay and Thomas Nesbitt, were still a year from being drafted by the OHL club.

But there’s reason to believe these 67’s could be a special group.

Kilrea certainly gave the team his vote of confidence when last Monday’s trade deadline passed quietly.

“We could definitely do something great this season, so I don’t think Killer wanted to mess up that chemistry,” said captain Nesbitt.

“Killer’s usually extremely loyal to his players and I don’t think anybody wanted to leave. We’re just going for it with the team we have and we’re definitely confident with the guys we have.”

When Nesbitt first broke into the league with his hometown team, “we relied on a couple of guys, (Logan) Couture or McGinn to carry the load offensively. Now, with the balance we have in our locker room, we’ve got two, three, sometimes four lines that can chip in offensively on any given night, and we’ve got three first pairings (on defence) and two great goalies.”

Management filled the 67’s most glaring need on defence with a pair of deals in November, first acquiring hard-nosed defenceman Jake Cardwell from Sudbury, then Julian Luciani from Belleville the following day.

The team responded by winning 17-of-23 games.

“When we came into the year, the question mark was on our defence, throughout the year we picked up the three guys we needed (including waiver claim Adam Sedlak in October) and I think those guys really stepped up ,” said veteran blueliner Travis Gibbons.

Still, no one could have predicted the impact those additions would have.

“That happens a lot here in Ottawa,” said Nesbitt. “Guys come in who are more role players on their other teams, but they get a lot of freedom here to use their skills and use their talents. It’s kind of a fresh start for them, and they’ve all been great for us.”

It happened a year ago for Kilrea when he sent a third-round pick to Kitchener for Shane Prince, who was wallowing on the Rangers’ third line with 29 points through his first 102 OHL games.

Kilrea admitted earlier this season that even he didn’t see the slumbering offensive potential when he swung the deal for Prince, who has exploded on the 67’s top line for 74 points heading into Friday’s game, second in the league to linemate Toffoli.

If the 67’s are serious about contending for the crown, no single weekend on the schedule presents a better look at what it will take than this one.

After hosting the two-time defending champion Windsor Spitfires Friday night, the 67’s head to Oshawa to face a Generals team hot on their heels for the division lead, before facing the Majors.

“These games are huge, it’s going to be a big test playing Mississauga, especially after playing such great teams before going in there,” said Nesbit. “It’s a big measuring stick.”

aedan.helmer@sunmedia.ca


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