If the Niagara IceDogs weren’t yet aware of the test that awaited them in the playoffs, they certainly should be familiar with it now. The seventh seeded North Bay Battalion came to the Meridian Centre and stole game two to even the best-of-seven series at 1-1.
Game one saw Jack Studnicka and Jason Robertson provide the only offence required in the contest and the IceDogs came away with a 2-0 win. Studnicka and Robertson proved why they were sought after at the trade deadline in this game. The IceDogs controlled play all the way through game one, outshooting the visiting opposition 52-23.
Game two, however, was a different story. Even though the IceDogs possessed the majority of chances in the early going, North Bay was the first to get on the scoreboard just under nine minutes into the game. Less than a minute after the first goal, OHL regular season goal leader Justin Brazeau (61) wired home another for the Battalion, as they seized a quick 2-0 lead. The IceDogs were fortunate to be trailing by just two after the first period with goaltender Stephen Dhillon managing to keep the game within reach.
“I don’t think we had enough playoff intensity at all,” said IceDogs head coach Billy Burke. “Thankfully, Stevie [Dhillon] made a couple of big saves. It could’ve been 4-0.”
The IceDogs got the start they needed in the second period, as just over two minutes in, Akil Thomas’ shot from the top of the right circle beat Battalion goaltender Christian Propp over his blocker to make it 2-1. Like the Battalion did earlier in the game, the IceDogs followed up their own goal quickly as captain Ben Jones tipped home a Matt Brassard point shot to even up the score at two. In spite of this push back by the home team, the second period ended with them trailing by the same deficit they had at the conclusion of the first period, ending with the Battalion ahead 4-2.
With nine minutes to play in the third period it looked as if the IceDogs had cut the Battalion lead in half. However, unfortunately for Niagara, it was determined upon review that the play was whistled dead by the referee prior to the puck crossing the goal line and the score remained at 4-2. The IceDogs pulled Dhillon from the net with three minutes to play in hopes of making one last push but the Battalion sealed the game with an empty net goal to make it 5-2.
“They’re stingy, they’re good defensively,” said Burke. “I just think we thought we could show up and it’d be easy…they had a great game plan and it worked.”
It was a clearly frustrating game from the IceDogs’ perspective, as once again the team heavily outshot North Bay, bringing the two game shot total to 97-50 in favour of the IceDogs. However, Burke was still not pleased with the overall effort from his team in game two.
“We didn’t get any breaks because we didn’t deserve any breaks. We didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t compete hard enough, so we got what we deserved,” said Burke. “A lot of our older guys have got to be better. Obviously I’m not going to call any guys out but there’s older guys who were not good enough tonight.”
Coincidentally two of Niagara’s leading scorers, Robertson and Studnicka, were left off of the score sheet in game two. This was just the second time in the 32 games that they’ve played together in IceDogs uniforms where neither managed to record a point. Certainly an outlier, but one that must be addressed as the series progresses.
On the other end of the spectrum, North Bay comes away with an impressive split of the first pair of games and, given the disparity in shots on goal, Battalion goaltender Propp has emerged as a difference maker as he carries a .958 save percentage in the two games combined. Play will resume in North Bay for game three on March 26, with game four going on Mar. 28. The series will return to the Meridian Centre on Mar. 29 for game five.