No longer doggin’ it

RYAN MORISSETTE

GETTY IMAGES

GETTY IMAGES

IceDogs in thick of playoff race after rough start to season

Coming into the 2014-2015 season, high expectations were set for the Niagara IceDogs. In what was considered a rebuilding year in 2013-2014, the IceDogs secured a playoff spot before being eliminated in the first round by the eventual eastern conference champion North Bay Battalion in a hard-fought seven-game series. Heading into the off-season, there was a hole on the back end that needed to be filled thanks to the mid-season trade of Jesse Graham to the Saginaw Spirit. To fill that hole, Head Coach and General Manager Marty Williamson acquired 6’5”, 225lb defenseman Ryan Mantha, a fourth round pick of the New York Rangers.

With the acquisition of Mantha and the subsequent return of nine of the team’s top ten scorers, the IceDogs were expected to contend for a division title.

Things did not start according to plan

While at the Arizona Coyotes’ prospects camp in early September, Brendan Perlini, the team’s second leading scorer and top line winger from 2013-2014, broke his hand. The injury would force Perlini to miss the first nine weeks of the season, leaving the IceDogs behind the eight ball before the season even began.

Seven games into the season, the injury bug struck again when Ryan Mantha injured his shoulder in practice, putting the hulking defenseman out of action for six weeks. A week later, the injury situation went from bad to worse when overage defenseman Luke Mercer, the team’s captain and unsung hero, suffered a knee injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season, ending his five-year OHL playing career.

Losing a top-three forward and two top-four defensemen in a matter of weeks certainly had an impact on the team.

“These are guys who log 25 to 30 minutes of ice time and those are big chunks of your lineup,” Head Coach and General Manager Marty Williamson told Rod Mawhood in a post-game interview with the St. Catharines Standard. While looking for ways to spread those minutes through other players; the IceDogs struggled, winning only two of their first 15 games. Both of their wins came on home ice, and the team remained winless on the road until a 3-0 victory over the Mississauga Steelheads on Nov. 7. With team performance eroding and injuries mounting, something had to be done.

The turnaround

To help solidify the goaltending position and provide some competition for third-year netminder Brent Moran, the team acquired overager Brandon Hope from the Owen Sound Attack on Nov. 4.
“We had to get deeper in that position to give ourselves a chance to win every night,” said Williamson to Bernie Puchalski in the St. Catharines Standard.

Hope is a five-year veteran of the league and would provide some veteran leadership on a young team. Immediately after the trade, the team won its next four games in a row, including two against Connor McDavid and the powerhouse Erie Otters. The team was finally starting to show glimpses of what they were truly capable of.

A week and a half after getting Hope, the team made a second trade — this one of the blockbuster variety — by acquiring star forward and New York Islanders first round pick Josh Ho-Sang from the Windsor Spitfires, in exchange for former top-10 OHL pick Hayden McCool and draft picks.

This was a huge pick up for the team, as Ho-Sang would provide some much needed scoring relief in the absence of Brendan Perlini. The team would lose its next three games, but with improvement in the team’s play and the imminent return of their injured players, things were on the upswing for a team in need of positive reinforcement.

Mantha’s return from a shoulder injury on Nov. 27 provided the team with its first boost, and it showed with a 9-2 thumping of the Belleville Bulls. To provide more good news to a team on the rise, Perlini returned to the lineup exactly one week later, marking the first time all season that the IceDogs had a full and healthy lineup. The team they had on paper was finally the team they had on the ice. With all their top players back, the Niagara IceDogs were finally given an opportunity to show what they were truly capable of.

From Dec. 4 to Feb. 15, a 29-game stretch, the IceDogs won 18 of those games. Was it Perlini’s return that sparked the turnaround, or was it the fact that the entire team was healthy for the first time all season? Regardless of the circumstances, one reason for the team’s turnaround was their newfound ability to score goals.

During this 29-game stretch the team scored 135 goals, which equals on average (to slightly over) four and a half goals per game. Prior to Dec. 4, the team averaged slightly more than two and a half goals per game through the first 25 games of the season. When a team can increase its goal production by two goals per game after averaging two goals per game to begin with, they stand a very good chance of winning the game.

Where the IceDogs will go from here?

With 14 games remaining in the regular season, the IceDogs currently sit at fifth place in the eastern conference standings. The top eight teams make the playoffs, and with ninth place Mississauga only nine points behind in the standings, it’s important for the IceDogs to finish the season on a strong note. If they can do that, they will be a team that no other team will want to face in the first round of the playoffs.

A healthy IceDogs team has shown why they had such high expectations placed on them at the beginning of the year. If they can remain in top shape, maybe a playoff run isn’t so far out of the question. We will find out in the weeks ahead.

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