Season-Long Domination vs. Come Back: An OHL Championship Preview

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OHL Championship
Philadelphia Flyers prospect Isaac Ratcliffe will be a difference maker as the Guelph Storm take on the Ottawa 67's for the OHL Championship (Tony Saxon/Guelph Today)

The 2019 OHL Championship Series is a battle of contrasts. A team marked by season-long domination taking on a team entrenched with the come back mantra. The Ottawa 67’s, a franchise who is undefeated this postseason, are taking on the Guelph Storm, an organization who has won back to back game 7’s on the road.

While both teams have taken starkly different journeys to get to the Final, it doesn’t diminish what’s at stake. For both Ottawa and Guelph, not only is it a spot in the annals of junior hockey history. But an opportunity to compete among the best junior teams in Canada at the Memorial Cup in Halifax.

After a long, grueling season that began in September, it’s time to drop the puck on what should be a thrilling OHL Championship Series.

Ottawa 67’s Relying on Consistent Dominance in OHL Championship

From early on in the season, the Ottawa 67’s were the best team in the OHL. Finishing the season with a league-leading 106 points, the 67’s were in a class of their own, led by forwards Tye Felhaber and Austen Keating, as well as Vancouver Canucks goalie prospect Michael DiPietro. Felhaber, who went from being undrafted to signing an NHL contract with the Stars, was third in the OHL in scoring with 109 points (59 goals, 50 assists). Keating would be the primary winger to set up Felhaber consistently throughout the season, racking up 22 goals and 67 assists.

But it was when the 67’s acquired goalie Mikey DiPietro in a trade with the Windsor Spitfires, when Ottawa became a legitimate championship contender. DiPietro led the season in goals against average (2.40) and was third in save percentage (0.911). Having these star players, as well as a deep roster, has allowed Ottawa 67’s coach Andre Tourigny to implement a strategy of physicality and speed on the ice.

“Our guys are hard-working guys,” Tourigny said. “They practiced hard every day during the season, and we didn’t change our approach in the playoffs. The biggest thing is to stay physical during practice. You don’t want bad habits.”

Ottawa 67’s Using Flooding Emergency as Unifying Moment

As the Ottawa 67’s embark on this championship series, they are looking to make OHL history. Currently 12-0, the 67’s have swept the Hamilton Bulldogs, Sudbury Wolves and Oshawa Generals en route to the Final, and are one win away from breaking the record for longest consecutive playoff winning streak.

But the city of Ottawa is currently dealing with severe flooding. People in the surrounding cities and towns have been forced to leave their homes. What may seem like adversity has provided a bonding opportunity for the 67’s players to help the community.

“We do a lot of community service,” stated Tourigny. “When I presented the idea to our leadership of helping the community they were happy for us to contribute.”

A couple days ago, several Ottawa 67’s players and coaching personnel were critical in providing support and help in the flooding recovery effort. From lifting sandbags to interacting with Ottawa citizens, this team is providing hope and optimism for a city ravaged with destruction and uncertainty.

“These players stay on the ball. Even if they have success, they have fun together,” says Tourigny. “Many of the players stayed around longer, helping with sandbags. Sure, we want to win a hockey game. But when you help the community and do good things, the impact goes much farther.”

The Storm of Guelph is Filled with Comebacks

When Isaac Ratcliffe was drafted to the Guelph Storm two years ago, he had high hopes that playing in the OHL would accelerate his hockey development. While Ratcliffe was improving his high hockey IQ and creating scoring opportunities, unfortunately the Storm did not make the playoffs in his first two seasons.

For Ratcliffe, the even-tempered Philadelphia Flyers prospect finally released his emotions, after the Storm captured their second consecutive Game 7 against the Saginaw Spirit. To make his first OHL Championship Series has made the journey even more special.

“Coming into the OHL I didn’t know what to expect,” said Ratcliffe. “We knew two years ago that this would be our year. To see us improve and to stick by this team all the way, it means a lot. We aren’t done yet.”

Guelph Storm Head Coach and General Manager George Burnett should be credited for bringing in the quality players that provided the impetus for this playoff run. Chicago Blackhawks prospect Mackenzie Entwistle has provided solid big-game experience for the Storm, generating 15 goals and 15 assists in 28 games played. Montreal Canadiens prospect Nick Suzuki, also acquired at the deadline, has been the anchor for Guelph’s offence in the postseason, leading the OHL with 31 points.

“It’s his IQ,” Tourigny affirmed. “If you give him something, he will make the right decision. For us, it will be important to play him right (and to) be on the right side of the puck against him. It will be a good challenge.”

Prediction: Expect a Highly Competitive Series

The Guelph Storm have already made history. No team has come back in back-to-back series, down 3-0 and 3-1 respectively, and win them both on the road. But their toughest test ahead is against the Ottawa 67’s, a team that is physically built and conditioned to endure a potentially long Championship series.

“Pretty crazy series to go down like we did and need Game 7 again,” said Ratcliffe, who has 21 points in 18 playoff games. “We hope we can bring that to the next series against a strong Ottawa team.”

Ottawa hasn’t faced a team that is deep in the forward position as Guelph. It will take a full team effort for the 67’s to slow down the offensive onslaught of Ratcliffe, Suzuki and Entwistle. But in junior hockey, solid goal-tending often is the difference in a short series. While DiPietro has been superb, Guelph needs a strong performance from goalie Anthony Popovich, who is ranked 7th in goals against average (2.87) and tenth in save percentage (0.902).

For both teams, they are looking to add another championship banner to their rafters. The 67’s haven’t won the J. Ross Robertson Trophy since 2001; for the Guelph Storm, it was 2014. The series will be highly competitive and feature high-quality, stellar junior hockey.

While the Storm’s postseason run has been nothing short of spectacular, the Ottawa 67’s have been on a whole other level this entire season. The Final will be close, but I see the 67’s clinching it and advancing to the franchise’s sixth Memorial Cup.

Prediction: Ottawa 67’s in six games.

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