Boone Jenner will seek revenge against a pair of former Canadian world junior teammates in Ryan Strome and Brett Ritchie when the Oshawa Generals host the Niagara IceDogs on Friday Night Hockey.
Strome and Ritchie’s IceDogs ended Jenner and the Generals’ season the past two years. The shoe may be on the other foot this time, with the Generals finishing third in the Eastern Conference and holding the higher seed for the first time in these three meetings
“Two years in a row (we’ve) been put out by the same team,” said D.J. Smith, Oshawa’s first-year head coach. “Obviously, that leaves a mark on you, but at the same time, you have to respect the team you’re playing. You can’t just focus on that; you have to worry about your game and less about redemption.”
“For two years, we were pretty much the favourite, and now we’re the underdogs,” Niagara head coach Marty Williamson said. “We’ve ended their season twice and they sure don’t want it to happen a third time.”
The Generals could have a bit of an edge in terms of matchups, since Smith’s staff is opting to spread the offence around and boasts three solid lines. Smith is preaching discipline to his players, since Strome and Ritchie don’t need many chances to burn the opposition. Their line, rounded out with Steven Shipley, presents quite the task for any team to keep in check.
“You really have to make sure you have an even shift against that top line at all times,” Smith said. “Don’t think you’re going to outscore them, because you’re more than likely not going to.”
Both head coaches are expecting a physical series, with each team trying to gain the edge by playing the body.
“If you’re banging and cracking bodies, the longer the series goes, the bigger, stronger team usually wears the other team down,” Smith said. “Whoever’s more physical and whoever stays out of the box more, at the end of the day, usually ends up on top.”
“They have a little bit of a mentality that they want to beat you and beat you up,” Williamson noted. “That’s OK, I mean, this is playoff time. We’re not scared of them by any means, but you have to be able to handle their physical play and we have to be able to give it back. I think that’s going to be one of the keys to this series.”
THE STARS: The IceDogs received a gift from the NHL when Strome and Ritchie were returned from camps following the lockout’s conclusion. They lost Dougie Hamilton to Boston, but were able to retain their dynamic duo up front, and the two are the catalysts for the IceDogs.
“We can’t put the weight of the world on them,” Williamson cautioned. “Our secondary scoring is where this series could be made or broken. We need (Carter) Verhaeghe and (Jordan) Maletta and (Anthony) DiFruscia and (Brendan) Perlini, guys like that, we need them to chip in with some offence. If it’s strictly Strome or Ritchie, I don’t think any team in this league can win with limited scoring even though they’re heck of players.”
Jenner is the heart and soul of the Generals. He leads by example with his hard work on and off the ice, that translates into strong efforts from teammates, such as Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Tyler Biggs.
“We need all our forwards to bang bodies and play like Boone plays,” Smith said. “I would think Boone, in his last year, wants to go out the right way and he will continue to work and work and if our guys follow that work ethic, I like our team effort.”
NAMES TO WATCH: Cole Cassels, son of former NHLer Andrew Cassels, is one of the players Smith hopes can provide secondary scoring for the Generals. His play late in the season certainly caught his coach’s attention.
“He’s played very good down the stretch,” Smith said. “He’s played physical, he’s won faceoffs, and Lucas Lessio and him are starting to get some chemistry together. That’s one of the things that we’re hoping for in the playoffs, that we’re a three-line team. If you shut down Boone and you shut down (Scott) Laughton, we hope that Lessio and Cassels go off that night.”
Verhaeghe stepped up in the second half after a slow start to his second season in Niagara. The team simplified his game after beginning the season with perhaps too many responsibilities, and the results have been favourable.
“He didn’t play a lot last year and I think our expectations were a little high, but he’s really come along and I think he’s going to be a big key in this series if he can chip in with some offence,” Williamson said.
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THE GOALIES: Chris Festarini steadied the ship for much of the season in Niagara. The veteran goalie struggled at times, and will need to be nothing short of brilliant for the IceDogs to have success against the Generals.
“We need him either to be better than (Daniel) Altshuller or equal,” Williamson said. “We expect Altshuller to have a big series for them, just like we expect Festarini to have a big series for us. He needs to do the job for us to be competitive. Nobody wins in the playoffs with bad goaltending.”
Altshuller stepped in for struggling starter Kevin Bailie in Game 3 of last year’s playoff series against Niagara and turned his solid performance into his third-round draft position in the summer. Now Altshuller is among the league’s best goaltenders and will be important to the Generals’ post-season success.
“I think everyone knows when you get in the playoffs, usually you only go as far as your goalie takes you,” Smith said. “He’s got the capability of getting hot and he’s got the capability of carrying us and we expect that. He’s drafted in the third round for a reason and he’s shown in spurts that he can do it. We have all the confidence in him.”
WHAT’S AT STAKE: Both teams know the first game of a playoff series sets the tempo. The IceDogs won the first game in each of the last two meetings before winning in five (2011) and six (2012) games.
“It’s always a very interesting game,” Williamson said. “I would imagine the first game’s going to be really physical and usually the series settles a little bit after that. Teams are going to come up with some strategies. They’re probably working on things to shut down Strome and Ritchie and we’re doing things here to limit the effectiveness of Laughton or Jenner and their big guys. Then it turns into a chess match after that, with line-matching. Are they going to line-match against Strome and Ritchie? And are we going to try to get away from it or are we going to be happy with it?”
“Game 1 is important, but at the end of the day, it’s whoever wins that fourth game against the other team,” Smith noted. “I’ve been lucky enough to have been through this with the Spitfires and been down in some series, come back and won and some different scenarios. You have to remain calm, you can’t panic. When you panic, you find a way to lose the next one. Yeah, we want the first one, but at the same point, we have to make sure we win four out of seven.”