April 27, 2012
IceDogs bounce 67's, advance to OHL final
By DAVE POLLARD, QMI AGENCY
ST. CATHARINES, ON - It will be the stacked, built-to-win-now Niagara IceDogs and the young, over-achieving London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League final.
The team everyone expected to with the Eastern Conference title versus the upstart, and some would say surprising, Hunter-led Knights.
The guy who failed -- twice -- to backstop Canada to gold at the world junior championship, Niagara's Mark Visentin, against the recently-crowned OHL goalie of the year, Michael Houser.
Ah, the storylines are looking juicy already.
The IceDogs punched their ticket to the championship series with a 3-2 win over the Ottawa 67's Friday at the Jack Gatecliff Arena, ending the best-of-seven Eastern final in five games. London advanced two nights earlier after sweeping the Kitchener Rangers in the Western final.
"I want them to enjoy it, it's a great accomplishment," Niagara coach/general manager Marty Williamson said. "But there's another step for us, maybe two steps. It's been a focused team, especially in the second half. Guys just stepped up for this team, it's a very focused group."
In the end, the IceDogs were also too good, too deep and too much for the 67's. Throw in a whole lot of Visentin, too.
Visentin, who failed to win a gold medal playing for Canada at the last two world junior tournaments, will get a chance to cap his career with an OHL title after turning in yet another solid performance in Game 5, stopping 27 shots.
Now, with the OHL title and a berth in the Memorial Cup on the line, Visentin will go head-to-head with Houser, the first American to be named the league's top goalie since Craig Anderson did it for the Guelph Storm in 2001.
"He's done nothing but set records in this league for shutouts, his goals-against was 1.99 this year," Williamson said. "He knows everything that's out there. It will be in the back of his mind.He;s a smart kid and he'll take the challenge. He'll never say anything outwardly about it but I know 100% it's a challenge he wants.
"He's a phenomenal kid. I really appreciate what he does for this hockey team."
For much of Friday's game, Visentin didn't have too much to do.
The 67's appeared to start running out of gas in the second period as the IceDogs took over. Even a two-goal lead seemed like too big a hill to climb, though the 67's made it an interesting finish with a late push.
"You could see some of our guys were getting fatigued," Ottawa coach/GM Chris Byrne admitted. "That was our 18th game. Some guys got a little more ice, or different ice. They're a good team they're deep. It's tight out there, it's playoff hockey. They just finished some plays in the third periods of games."
Not surprising, really, that the 67's got gassed, given that they were coming off an emotional seven-game series with the Barrie Colts while the 'Dogs had a chance to rest after dusting the Brampton Battalion in four.
"It's always tough losing," Ottawa defenceman Jake Cardwell said. "It was a good year. It's too bad losing like that but it happens, that's hockey."
In the end, with 12 NHL draftees and five members of the 2012 Canadian junior team on the roster, the IceDogs, the pre-season pick by many to come out of the East, were simply too much for the 67's.
Of course, it didn't help much that Tyler Toffoli (52 goals) and Shane Prince (43 goals) , the 67's top two point-getters during the regular season, managed just two goals between them in the series and the secondary scoring was almost non-existent.
Once Niagara got rolling, there wasn't much Ottawa, playing without captain Marc Zanetti, draft-eligible defenceman Sean Callaghan, a scratch for Game 5, and injured forward John McFarland, could do to counter it. Zanetti was suspended for the duration of the playoffs after kicking Niagara's Tom Kuhnhackl in the head during Game 1.
New York Islanders first-rounder Ryan Strome scored his first of the series with a laser past Petr Mrazek during a power play two minutes into the game, but Sean Monahan evened it a minute later with Ottawa up a man.
Freddie Hamilton beat Mrazek on a short break later in the first then little brother Dougie set up Alex Friesen in the second to give Niagara a 3-1 advantage.
Ottawa pushed back in third but a Cardwell power-play goal midway through the period was as close as it would get. Niagara tightened it up after Mrazek went to the bench with a minute and a half to go and the 67's had trouble even getting a shot through to Visentin.
"Credit to all the guys for being focused (enough) to close this off," Freddie Hamilton said. "But we're not satisfied with this."