Eastern Conference Final Preview
Two Eastern Conference teams remain as the Barrie Colts and the Niagara IceDogs battle for the Bobby Orr Trophy to advance to the OHL Finals.
Here’s a look at the upcoming matchup:
BARRIE COLTS (2) vs. NIAGARA ICEDOGS (4) – #BARvsNIAG
Two well-rested Central Division foes square off in the Eastern Conference Finals as the division champion Barrie Colts take on the surging Niagara IceDogs for the Bobby Orr Trophy.
The two sides have never met in a playoff series since the Dogs made the venture to St. Catharines in 2007, but a lack of playoff history doesn’t mean the two sides aren’t familiar with one another. The Colts took wins in four of the six meetings between the two clubs this season.
“We’re two teams that have played each other a lot and I think we both have a pretty good idea of what we’re up against,” said veteran Colts captain Michael Webster. “You can’t get too caught up in what happened during the season though. The playoffs are a new season altogether and teams can take their game to another level. If you can reach the conference finals you know you’ve had some success, so we’re both good teams and it will make for an exciting series.”
“There’ve been some battles,” IceDogs captain Anthony DiFruscia echoed. “We’ve seen each other quite a bit over the past few seasons and I think they’ve had the upper hand. We want to come out and show them what we have and make things interesting.”
One of the primary storylines entering the series will be goaltending, with a pair of second round NHL draft picks and World Junior Team members going head-to-head.
Barrie’s Mackenzie Blackwood was a second round pick by the New Jersey Devils in 2015 before representing Canada at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Helsinki, Finland. The Thunder Bay native currently leads the OHL Playoffs with a 2.26 goals-against average and a .924 save perccentage over nine games.
At the other end, Alex Nedeljkovic was a second round choice by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2014. The 20-year-old enters his second conference finals appearance with his other trip to the third round coming as a 17-year-old rookie in 2013 when the Plymouth Whalers fell to the London Knights in five games. Nedeljkovic is the only player on the IceDogs to have played in a conference final.
“Ned has been outstanding since we brought him in,” IceDogs head coach and general manager Marty Williamson said of his starting netminder. “He’s a major part of the turnaround for us not only in the crease, but he’s also provided us with a steady presence and leadership.”
Nedeljkovic was instrumental in Niagara’s surprising four game sweep of the East Division champion Kingston Frontenacs in the second round. The member of the American World Junior Team this past December made over 30 saves in each of the four victories.
Another intriguing similarity between the two clubs is a feelgood overage story this past season. Both Niagara’s Jordan Maletta and Barrie’s Justin Scott earned NHL contracts with the Columbus Blue Jackets after going undrafted earlier in their OHL careers.
Maletta, who was voted as the best faceoff man in the Eastern Conference in the OHL Coaches Poll in March, has been trending upward for quite some time. The St. Catharines native finished the season with 34 goals in 68 games.
“Jordan has improved every season and continues to work hard on improving various areas of his game,” noted Williamson. “For him, it’s been keeping his nose to the grindstone even after he was drafted high and set big standards for himself as a rookie that didn’t always work out. He has worked hard to get this opportunity with Columbus.”
Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk’s assessment of Scott, who leads the OHL Playoffs with 14 goals, is quite similar.
“He’s come through at big times for us,” he said. “We see a lot of guys come through the league and go undrafted, but their work ethic and positive attitude keeps them working toward their goals. Everyone’s timing is different and Justin has put the hard work in to get there and is reaping the rewards now.”
Both clubs enter the Eastern Conference Finals with the wind at their backs following four game series sweeps of worthy opponents in the second round. As is the nature of playoff hockey however, only one team can come away victorious, setting the stage for what’s sure to be an intense series between familiar foes in the coming days.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals is set for Thursday night in Barrie at 7:30pm.
Barrie won season series 4-2-0-0
Oct. 2, 2015 – BAR 4 @ NIAG 1 (BAR: Labanc 1G, 1A)
Oct. 8, 2015 – BAR 1 @ NIAG 5 (NIAG: Perlini 3G)
Nov. 28, 2015 – NIAG 5 @ BAR 2 (NIAG: Maletta, Perlini 2G)
Dec. 28, 2015 – NIAG 4 @ BAR 5 SO (BAR: Labanc 2G, 1A)
Jan. 30, 2016 – NIAG 2 @ BAR 3 (BAR: Blackwood 32 SV)
Mar. 4, 2016 – BAR 6 @ NIAG 3 (BAR: Nattinen 2G, 1A)
This marks the first time that the Niagara IceDogs and Barrie Colts have squared off in the OHL Playoffs.
Game 1, Thurs., April 21 Niagara at Barrie, 7:30
Game 2, Sat., April 23 Niagara at Barrie, 7:30
Game 3, Mon., April 25 Barrie at Niagara, 7:00
Game 4, Wed., April 27 Barrie at Niagara, 7:00
Game 5, Fri., April 29 Niagara at Barrie, 7:30*
Game 6, Sun., May 1 Barrie at Niagara, 2:00*
Game 7, Mon., May 2 Niagara at Barrie, 7:30*
Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.