Shorthanded 67’s relentless attitude acting as fuel for playoff push
The revamped and shorthanded Ottawa 67’s are the owners of the longest point streak in the Eastern Conference at the moment, earning at least a point in each of their last seven games.
Both positives and negatives have come with the stretch of games spanning the last three weeks, with the biggest plus coming in the standings, where the Barber Poles are battling tooth and nail in the incredibly tight East. Currently positioned in sixth place, the 67’s sit only four points back of the East Division-leading Oshawa Generals, with two games in hand.
This past weekend, the 67’s headed to Sarnia, before making their second trip to the United States to pay a visit to the Flint Firebirds and Saginaw Spirit. Four points on the weekend can be seen as a positive for the Barber Poles, who were short Collin MacKenzie, Brady Stonehouse, Cooper Foster, and Chris Barlas among others.
“It’s huge for the team,” said 67’s goaltender Ian Michelone, who was acquired from the Windsor Spitfires at the trade deadline. “Obviously, we’re missing a few key players, with MacKenzie being one of them, and I’ve had to step up, along with pretty much everyone else on the team. We’ve kept it together.”
Each game was close, and there was no convincing the 67’s locker room they couldn’t get it done, despite their missing talent.
“It shows that we’re a very deep team,” Michelone said. “We played against the Memorial Cup hosts, and we had the lead all the way until five minutes left in the third. It’s a matter of keeping it going. We’re going to be missing guys in the playoffs at some point, so it’s a good lesson to have right now.”
Unfortunately, injuries and illness are nothing new for the 67’s this season, having never played a game with their entire roster available. Whether it has been Thomas Sirman missing the majority of the first half, playing without import forward Tuomas Uronen since October, or missing their starting goaltender, the Barber Poles have been forced to truck forward.
Their 24-17-5-1 record reveals the adversity they have been through. It’s emblematic of Bradley Horner stepping up to play forward, Chase Yanni and Kaleb Dietsch being asked to pitch in from time to time, Michelone eating up minutes in relief of MacKenzie, and above all else, an unrelenting demand to rise above the uncontrollable factors.
“We’re relentless, we’ve been battling through these situations all year now,” said Assistant Coach, Paul Stoykewych. “When you subtract people, you have to add others, so it gives people a chance to step up. Kimi Körbler has been incredible for us, he’s been playing on the top line for a few games now, and he’s been defensively sound. He’s getting an opportunity.”
The stretch hasn’t come without things to work on, however. In five of the seven games, including each of the last four, the 67’s have held leads, only to cough it up in the final stages of the third period.
For the coaching staff, it’s viewed as a chance to learn, and valuable experience for when the playoffs roll around.
“We’re fortunate that we’re still 20 games away from the playoffs,” Stoykewych said. “We have to learn from this now. It’s an opportunity to grow, and put the right people in the right situations to learn how to close out these games. It’s only going to benefit us moving forward that we’re in these tight games now.”
Over the course of the week, the film has been studied, and players have taken responsibility for the breakdowns across the board. According to Michelone, it’s an important step to take as the team looks to return to the roots of their game: being defensively sound.
“You have to take accountability,” Michelone said. “There are goals that I want back, but it’s the game, one team is going to win, and one is going to lose. Anything can happen, and we have to take the good with the bad.”
With now 15 points in 11 games since the trade deadline, Stoykewych says he’s beginning to see the team gel together in a meaningful way.
“It has been a bit of a rollercoaster,” he explained. “It takes time for guys to come in and adjust, but we’re starting to gain traction, you can see it. It’s not the wins and losses, it’s how we’ve been playing. We’re managing pucks, creating more offensive zone possession, and we’ve been defending harder and tighter. The next step is closing these games out.”
The final 21 games of the season promise to be gigantic for the playoff race, with only seven points separating the 67’s and the Sudbury Wolves in first place. The standings are now clearly placed on the wall in the players’ lounge inside The Arena at TD Place, and there’s no hiding the fact that the chase is on.
“Extremely hungry,” Stoykewych said of his club’s desire to move up. “It’s fun knowing that every game matters, it keeps you sharp. Seeing your name climb up the standings is fun. You always want to get as high as you can, and the goal right now is to get into the top four and get home ice.”
The 67’s seek to even the season series with the Peterborough Petes tonight in Capital Territory. Puck drop is at 7 p.m.