by Alex Quevillon
The playoff brackets have been set for the 2012 OHL playoffs and, with all due respect to Phil Phillips and the Belleville Bulls, their matchup against the Ottawa 67's in the first round plays into the ideal plans of fans in the Nation's Capital. I say all due respect because the Belleville Bulls because they are a very exciting young team. Who wouldn't love to have 2012 NHL Draft Eligible Brendan Gaunce and Malcolm Subban in their lineup? Or the veteran experience of a guy like Luke Judson?
In fairness, Belleville was still the team that Ottawa fans wanted in round one. Between being swept in the first round of last year's playoffs by Sudbury, and moving out to Kanata, Ontario next season, the 67's have to leave a good impression on their supporters with a solid finish. And a big first round win could be all it takes to get the ball rolling.
The East Division winners in Ottawa dominated their runners-up in Belleville, going 7-0-1 in the regular season, finishing off the season series by winning a home-and-home with the Bulls by a combined score of 15-4.
Winning and even sweeping a regular season series isn’t necessarily indicative of how the playoffs will end up, though. The 67’s found this out the hard way last year, winning both contests against the Sudbury Wolves and then being swept by them when the games really mattered. Not to mention, through their eight matchups this year, injuries and trades made both lineups look entirely different every time they met.
Home Ice Advantage
You would think that home ice, especially in an arena as unique as Belleville’s, would be a huge advantage for the home side. That wasn’t the case when Ottawa visited the Yardmen this season, however. Ottawa’s quick counter attack and speed through the neutral zone were too much for the Bulls to handle on their own wide ice surface. Speaking of home ice, Ottawa will also have a luxury that they didn’t get last season. Games one and two will be played at the J. Benson Cartage Center in Ottawa. Last season, the Home & Garden show at Landsdowne forced the 67’s and Wolves to play Game one in Kanata, while games two and three were held in Sudbury. The Barberpoles were down 3-0 in the series before they played a single true home game.
Goaltending Need Not Apply
As well as Malcolm Subban has played this season, the 67's continue to give him fits. The brother of Canadiens defender P.K. is 0-7 in his career against Ottawa, which includes four losses and 14 goals allowed this season.
Four other goaltenders stood between the pipes during Ottawa-Belleville games this year, although none of them fared much better. For Belleville, Charlie Graham allowed 15 goals in two starts and one relief performance, and while John Chartrand was the only Bulls goalie to beat Ottawa this season, he allowed 12 goals in two starts against the Barberpoles. Ottawa's Michael Nishi allowed six goals in three games while Petr Mrazek, who will undoubtedly be the starter in this series, allowed twelve goals in five starts with one shutout.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the 67’s and Bulls are arch rivals, but the two have had some nasty playoff matchups in the past. From Luke Sellars elbowing Justin Papineau (credit to Phil for reminding me in one of his past blogs) to Belleville's Nathan Robinson launching Sellars headlong into the boards in the 2001 playoffs. These two teams have a rough and tumble history in the playoffs and this season, the nasty play hasn’t been dialled down at all. In a one-week span (Belleville 4-1 exhibition win on September 23rd, Ottawa 2-1 win on opening night, September 30th), they combined to drop the gloves seven times. Dalton Smith was suspended ten games for an unnecessary elbow on Belleville goaltender Malcolm Subban in the latter of the two meetings and in the final seven matchups, seven more scraps broke out between the teams.
Prediction: 67’s in Five. If Ottawa can't beat a team whose top scorer and starting goaltender aren't old enough to be drafted, then they shouldn't be in the second round of the playoffs. Gaunce is going to be a very good player and Subban is arguably the best goaltender in the OHL. But after Gaunce, who is 34th in league scoring, the next Bull in that department is Austen Brassard at #74. These two teams are very much run-and-gun, and that's a game I don't see Belleville winning when the 67's have two of the top four scorers (#2 Tyler Toffoli, #4 Shane Prince) in the league with Sean Monahan in 16th.
Could Ottawa have a first-round mental block after being swept last year? It's possible. Could the Bulls finally use home ice to their advantage and steal a couple games in Ottawa? Sure. Do the 67's collapse late in games too often? Absolutely. Belleville found out for themselves, erasing a 4-0 deficit in a 6-5 win on November 2nd. Do I see this causing Belleville to go to the second round. Not quite.
Non-related prediction: This prediction doesn't entirely have to do with the OHL, but it's something that hasn't happened in a long time and hopefully, it happens this year. I boldly predict that Gatineau Olympiques fans will be coming across the river to Ontario to watch the 67's after their team has been eliminated. In past years, I've been one of many that have headed to La Belle Province to watch Gatineau once our year was ended.
Final Thoughts: If there are any Ottawa-based hockey fans who are on the fence about attending games, go for it. Ottawa is one of the rare OHL cities where attendance actually goes down in the playoffs, and until lately, attendance wasn't very good by 67's standards to begin with. These may very well be the last playoffs you ever have the chance to see in this classic OHL building. Come out and enjoy it.
by Alex Quevillon
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