This past Friday, June 15, 2015, the Oshawa Generals won the J. Ross Robertson Cup, awarded to the last team standing in the OHL playoffs, for the first time since 1996-97, back when Marc Savard carried the team on his shoulders. Although the Gens had the home ice advantage, the popular money was on them falling to Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters in the final round.
Entering the series, McDavid was a one-man army taking down all comers, with a league leading 42 points in 19 games. If he did not add a single point in the final, that still would have taken the postseason scoring crown by 11 points over the closest challenger. Of course, he didn’t stop there, but the Generals were relatively successful in making the story about them, pushing most (if not all) of the hardware and more (if not all) of the accolades in their general direction.
The Generals entered the playoffs as clear favorites to emerge out of the Eastern Conference, as their 108 regular season points were 23 more than the runners-up in Barrie and North Bay (tie). After debilitating the Peterborough Petes and then the Niagara Ice Dogs in the first two rounds, D.J. Smith’s charges stumbled briefly in the conference finals against North Bay. Chatting to a veteran scout during game two of that series, after the Generals fell 6-1 to the Battalion at home in the first game, he cautioned that another loss would likely end the series. This was late in a game that saw regulation end without a single red light. Thankfully for Oshawa, overtime lasted all of 61 seconds, with veteran blueliner Dakota Mermis banging home a rebound to end a rush started by forwards Michael McCarron and Tobias Lindberg. The former’s shot went wide and caromed off the boards back into the slot. North Bay netminder Jake Smith was out of position as Mermis quickly shot the puck past him to send the hometown crowd home satisfied. Oshawa won three of the next four games, just as Erie took out regular season champs Sault Ste. Marie in six.
Both the Generals and the Otters made for worthy adversaries in the finals, as both rosters are deeper than the average OHL lineup, with the Otters having OHL leading scorer Dylan Strome supporting McDavid, as well as prolific drafted prospects such as Remi Elie and Nicholas Baptiste in addition to a host of others with professional futures. On the other hand, the Generals were led by Michael Dal Colle, drafted fifth overall last year by the Islanders, along with other drafted prospects including Cole Cassels, Matt Mistele, Josh Brown the aforementioned McCarron and Lindberg and others, in addition to a few 2015 prospects of whom Mitchell Vande Sompel is the most prominent.
From the first game, the plan of attack by the Generals was clear: do not let McDavid gather speed when carrying the puck through the neutral zone. At every opportunity, veterans Brown and Mermis were matched up against the McDavid line, which generally featured OHL rookie of the year Alex DeBrincat and Stars’ prospect Elie on the wings. That plan worked in the first game, as Oshawa held serve with a 4-1 victory. McDavid was limited to a single power play assist. The Generals controlled the run of play and outshot the Otters in this one by a count of 31-19.
The Otters were better prepared for game two. Although the home team opened the scoring again, with Mistele gathering a pass from Dal Colle in the slot with his back to the net, pivoting and firing a snap shot through Devin Williams in the visitor’s net. Less than ten minutes later, the Otters had equalized, with draft eligible Nick Betz, a large power winger, curling into the slot from the corner and sending a low shot into the net.
For over 35 minutes, that’s all there was as the two teams traded chances. McDavid took a lot of physical heat from Brown and oversized Flames prospect Hunter Smith, but could not generate anything of substance. Finally, with just under eight minutes remaining in the third, the Generals found a way to score. Dal Colle and Anthony Cirelli broke into the Erie zone on a two on one rush. Dal Colle toe-dragged his way into some space and got the puck on net. The original shot was stopped, but Cirelli played trailer to perfection and gave his team the lead. Oshawa would score three more times in the ensuing 5:12, two of which were also the culmination of odd-man rushes. All three goals were by drafted players, with Tobias Lindberg, Cole Cassels and Matt Mistele doing the honors.
With the series returning to Pennsylvania, the Otters won the first home game, but lost a wild one in game four, a match that saw regulation finish with five goals a side. This brought the series back to Oshawa with the home team needing only one victory and having three chances to get it. Erie came out in full force in the opening period and scored first with Betz again providing the thrust, bearing in on the Ken Appleby from the right wing. Appleby is a huge netminder, but lacking a little bit in athleticism. He can be beat low.
Nick Betz opening the scoring in Game 5 against Oshawa. (Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
The lead lasted all of 43 seconds. The equalizer was almost a mirror image of the previous marker. Hunter Smith bore in on Williams on the left wing at the opposite end of the rink, and a quick snap shot found space in the goalie’s five-hole.
Ken Appleby did well to keep the net clean for the rest of the first and the Generals broke through in the first shift of the second period. Lindberg and McCarron flanked young Sam Harding on a 3-on-2 rush which was finished by Harding, who beat Devin Williams high after the goalie went down too soon. Like their third period barrage in game two, once again this signalled the opening of the flood gates as the Generals scored twice more in the next four minutes and change, both goals coming with the man advantage after a pair of unnecessary penalties incurred by Erie. The two goals were similar in nature as well. First McCarron and then Mistele pounced on rebounds that Williams could not poke clear of the danger area even though he had come out to challenge the shooters. In both cases, the forwards were able to bang the second chances past the goalie with little difficulty. Too late and too little, Erie coach Kris Knoblauch turned to backup goalie Daniel DeKoning. His team responded a few minutes later with a a power play goal of their own, scored by Darren Raddysh on a wrist shot from the faceoff dot to Appleby’s left that beat him high on his right side. A few minutes after that, the Otters beat Appleby again, although that goal was waved off after a lengthy review showed clear evidence that DeBrincat guided the puck into the net using his arm.
The Otters were rarely in danger of scoring after that. Depth forward Bradley Latour added a fifth Generals goal with over five minutes remaining in the third. He strode past a flat footed Erie defence and beat DeKoning from in tight. Erie almost got another one right back, as McDavid managed to avoid the neutral zone trap laid out just for him and broke in all alone on Appleby. There are few things more dangerous at any level of hockey than a McDavid breakway, but on this occasion, the Oshawa goalie stuck out his catching glove and calmly snatched the future Oiler’s puck out of the air. That was the last chance Erie would get. With 48 seconds remaining, fourth liner Aiden Wallace scored into an empty net to kill the game and cement his team’s spot in the 2015 Memorial Cup, starting on May 22 in Quebec City.
Although he was held without a point in the final game and ended the night an unsightly -3, McDavid’s last on-ice moment of the series came with his acceptance of the Wayne Gretzky ‘99’ Award as Playoff MVP, only a few points shy of breaking the playoff scoring record.
The Generals will be joined by WHL champions Kelowna Rockets and both the Quebec Remparts and the Rimouski Oceanic from the QMJHL. The Remparts are guaranteed a spot by virtue of hosting the tournament and the Oceanic, due to their standings as QMJHL finalists facing Quebec, are the top finishing team from the Q who isn’t hosting. Game seven of that series goes on Monday, May 18. David McKnight will preview the Memorial Cup tournament later this week.
The 2015 OHL champions. (Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)