OHL final preview: Greyhounds facing fatigue, well-balanced Bulldogs

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds winger Boris Katchouk. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have had their fans sweating out seventh games, but swear they are no worse for the wear and tear.

The cherry-picked compare-and-contrasts between the Greyhounds and Hamilton Bulldogs, who begin the Rogers OHL Championship Series at the Soo’s Essar Centre on Thursday, come easily. Sault Ste. Marie is the junior puck hotbed where their last title, a 1993 Memorial Cup victory, feels like yesterday and too long ago at once – “It’s been a long time for our organization and our city to be in this position,” says ’Hounds coach Drew Bannister, who played for the ’93 team. Hamilton is a third-year OHL outfit just putting down roots. The Greyhounds were one of the first OHL teams to go the analytics route. Hamilton has worked the trade market well; roughly half of its roster came into the OHL with other teams.

Four ’Hounds, so far, are NHL first or second-round picks – roll call: Morgan Frost (PHI), Boris Katchouk (TB), Taylor Raddysh (TB) and Conor Timmins (COL), with Barrett Hayton high up in many mock drafts. Centre Robert Thomas (STL) alone has such draft status in the Bulldogs’ ranks and their best underager, Arthur Kaliyev, is in the 2019 draft cohort.

The big difference, though, is turnaround time after the third round. The ’Hounds ended up with fewer than 72 hours after their second Game 7, when Jack Kopacka (ANA) scored in double overtime to eliminate the Kitchener Rangers in a riveting Western Conference final. An earlier start to the Eastern final led to the Bulldogs enjoying a full week’s respite after their five-game win against the Kingston Frontenacs.

Hamilton has all hands on deck with no major injuries. The Greyhounds enter the series with glue-guy overage centre Hayden Verbeek (MTL) out indefinitely, while defenceman Anthony DeMeo will miss at least Game 1.

“The last two series have taken a toll on us but we were able to fight through it, which was good for us,” said Greyhounds captain Tim Gettinger (NYR), whose team also went the distance against the Owen Sound Attack in the second round. “We have to put it in the past. Everyone has bumps and bruises. Once that puck drops for Game 1 that doesn’t mean anything. We have to do whatever it takes to win a championship.”

The Greyhounds’ regular season, where they went 55-7-3-3, launched a thousand “the last time it happened in the OHL” tweets. Their path through the playoffs is unique for a MasterCard Memorial Cup hopeful that, as Hamilton coach John Gruden put it, “has been No. 1 in all the CHL all season.”

No team had won two seven-game series in the same post-season since 2004, when the Guelph Storm and then-Mississauga IceDogs each did so, before Guelph won the J. Ross Robertson Cup.

“Game 6, both times we weren’t happy with how we played,” Gettinger said. “But in the room, we’re a tight group and we don’t get down on each other no matter happens. After both of those games we knew we were going back to the Soo where we seem to play really well and have the crowd behind us and we were confident and I think it showed in our play in those games.”

This series has a tough act to follow after the Rangers-Greyhounds affair. The final games each involved a tying goal from the visitors in the final 90 seconds that set the stage for overtime. Rangers winger Givani Smith (DET) paid a price by receiving a suspension for the decider after making an inappropriate gesture toward the Sault Ste. Marie bench after his winning goal in Game 6 on Sunday, but the swirl of emotions made it inevitable that some lines would be crossed.

As vaunted as their transition game is on the ice, the Greyhounds have a tough pivot to this series.

“As far as coaching goes, that was an emotional series,” Bannister said. “A lot of stuff happened, on and off the ice, that adds to it, but it’s all part of the game. When we look back there’s a lot of respect for Kitchener and how they played and how they handled it. It was a lot of fun to be part of it.

“You have to face adversity at some point in their season,” Bannister added. “The teams that are able to adapt and learn from it are the ones that win.”

The inconvenient fact that the Western Conference champions have won 14 of the last 16 OHL titles has become a fourth wall in pre-series prognosticating. History does not dictate the future. Needing only five games in each series could also reflect that the Bulldogs are a dialed-in veteran group. While the Greyhounds have the edge in natural offence, the Bulldogs have 13 elders (overages and 19-year-olds), including all six regular defencemen and goalie Kaden Fulcher (DET), who has a playoff-best 2.35 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.

“Our defence has been excellent, they’re very underrated,” said Gruden. “They just do their jobs … their gaps continue to get better. They’re excellent positionally and they’re getting a lot more pucks to the net. (Hamilton’s first defence pairing of) Justin (Lemcke) and Riley (Stillman) have done a great job. They’re going to have to be even better in this series.”

Fulcher’s counterpart, Matthew Villalta (LA), has a 3.14/.893 playoff statline thanks to the dents left by Owen Sound two rounds ago.

Sault Ste. Marie was identified as a contender from the outset of this season. The Bulldogs took the Eastern lead early and general manager Steve Staios fortified the roster by adding Thomas and Stillman (FLA), with scorers Nicholas Caamano (DAL) and Ryan Moore coming over to make it as foursome of players who had played for Gruden on the Flint Firebirds.

“Last year being my first year here there were times we had really to fight with them to stay motivated – ‘why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?’ ” Gruden said. “This year there was none of that. They came to work. Justin, his leadership skills continued to get better. (Overage defenceman) Connor Walters, his leadership skills continued to get better. And once Steve (Staios) identified that this team was ready for it, he made those moves. We were fortunate enough to get Ryan Moore and Nicholas Caamano, players that I was familiar with (from Flint), and we have not looked back since.”

Six Bulldogs played in either Belleville or Plymouth three seasons ago. There is something endearing about a recently relocated team, with several contributors who have come through being on transplanted teams, creating an identity.

“The big kudos for chemistry goes to Steve (Staios) and all our coaches, instilling how well we practise,” said Lemcke, one of the three Belleville holdovers. “When the new guys came in at the deadline they made the practices even more competitive. Our coaches have made the game more challenging every day.”

Eastern Conference teams constructed similarly to the Bulldogs – scoring by committee, size and seasoning on the back end, a zoned-in goalie – have gone toe-to-toe with Western juggernauts. The Oshawa Generals wearing out the Connor McDavid-led Erie Otters in five games in 2015 is the classic case-in-point. A year prior, the Guelph Storm beat the North Bay Battalion in five games, but three of Guelph’s wins required late third-period or overtime winning goals.

Of course, every year it gets harder to win at any serious level of hockey by living on the margins. Everyone is skilled and detail-oriented.

“The puck management aspect is going to be key for us,” Gruden added. “We’re going into an environment where this (Sault Ste. Marie) team plays extremely fast. They like the puck on their sticks. When we have it we have to make sure that they are going 200 feet (the full length of the ice) to score. If we start turning pucks over it will be a long game for us.”

If that doesn’t happen, something like the 10-0 win the Greyhounds posted against the Bulldogs back on Feb. 16 can happen. All involved maintain that was a one-off.

“We all score-watch as coaches and players and we know how well Hamilton has played in the playoffs,” Bannister said.

The Greyhounds rate the edge in big-game experience, thanks in large part to Raddysh and Jordan Sambrook (DET), who helped the Erie Otters win the OHL title last season before finishing second at the MasterCard Memorial Cup. The season-long form also points toward Sault Ste. Marie.

But as the playoffs go on, the teams’ relative health is always the great equalizer. It could be a longshot, but that might lead to Hamilton having a better start, although Sault Ste. Marie is 40-4 at home this season.

“When we started practice back up on Monday I had to cut it a little short because I thought our energy was too high,” Gruden said.

As deep as Sault Ste. Marie had to dig to get out of the conference, it doesn’t ensure the Greyhounds of anything. The water might have been choppier, but teams either ride the wave or get crushed by it; the proof is in the playing.

“A lot of the bumps and bruises that are on guys don’t get healed in a week,” Bannister said. “It would be nice to have that kind of time (that Hamilton had).

“But I believe we’re a better hockey team for what we went through against Owen Sound and Kitchener.”

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