The OHL playoffs are quickly approaching, and while the Niagara IceDogs have been comfortably set in a playoff spot for quite some time — they have been continuing their fight for favourable seeding in the Eastern Conference. A Sunday matinée against the Barrie Colts sent a strong message that even though the team has positioned themselves in the playoffs, they cannot let up as the season winds down. Barrie came into the game three points out of a playoff spot with just five games to be played. They were a team playing desperately but in the early goings of the game the IceDogs seemed unphased; they jumped all over the Colts, firing the first 18 shots on net and scoring three times within the first eight minutes — including a shorthanded goal.
Even though the teams had split the season series 2-2 to this point, the IceDogs made it look as if they were playing a completely different tier of hockey. Because of this, frustrations boiled over frequently in the early stages of the contest, but the IceDogs maintained their composure and the lead through the first period.
However, the second period was a different story. At one point the IceDogs were outshooting their opponents 30-4 but a couple of bad breakdowns resulted in the score reading 3-2, inaccurately representing how the game had transpired to that point.
“It was important to get out to a good lead and a good start and we got that and then I think that we just thought that Barrie would roll over and they obviously didn’t,” said IceDogs head coach Bill Burke. “They can play, they’re fighting for their lives.”
It didn’t stop there as projected first round pick for the upcoming NHL draft, Ryan Suzuki tacked on another goal to level the game at 3-3. The shots were a shocking 31-8 in favour of Niagara at this time. It wasn’t until late in the second period when IceDogs captain Ben Jones scored his 40th goal of the season on the power play to reclaim the lead for the home team. They would hold on from there to close out the win.
“A win is a win but it certainly was a lot closer than it needed to be and that’s on us, we survived it,” said Burke. “You know, it’s like a boxing match, we took one on the chin and stumbled but we were able to keep our feet under us.”
The IceDogs conclude their home schedule on March 14 and have a strong 24-6-3 at the Meridian Centre this year.
“I’d rather just play a good 60 minutes and stay up the whole time but we’re lucky we’re at home, our fans helped us,” said Burke. “You don’t ever want to let a team tie it up after you’re up 3-0.”
The IceDogs have also won eight of their last 10 games and their last five losses this season have come by just a single goal.
The team has been supported by their depth all year. The usual suspects of NHL draftees Jason Robertson (Dallas), Jones (Vegas) and Akil Thomas (Los Angeles) all find themselves in the top 10 in league scoring and Kirill Maksimov (Edmonton) isn’t far behind either, sitting in 17th. Jack Studnicka (Boston) and Ivan Lodnia (Minnesota) along with draft eligible Phil Tomasino are providing great production as well.
When asked about playing teams on the cusp of the playoffs, like Barrie, Burke found that it’s a valuable test in preparation for the desperate situations that’ll present themselves in postseason play.
“We’ve kind of been trying to play playoff hockey ourselves for the last two weeks. Guys are playing for their lives, they’ve got players whose OHL careers are on the cusp of finishing and that’s a challenge we have going forward here,” said Burke. “So it was good, we need that urgency as well so it’s great to play these type of games.”
The IceDogs will play one final home game against the Mississauga Steelheads on Mar. 14 before heading to Barrie and North Bay on Mar. 16 and 17 to wrap up their regular season schedule. While it’s too early to say who the IceDogs will be facing in the first round or where they will find themselves in the standings — Niagara, Sudbury and Oshawa are all separated by just three points — what we do know is that the 41-17-7 IceDogs, who currently sit in second place, will receive home ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.