Strome puts aside friendship with Barzal to lead Otters to victory

Dylan Strome scored the game-winner in the third to get the Otters a 4-2 win over the Thunderbirds at the Mastercard Memorial Cup.

WINDSOR, Ont. – Dylan Strome and Mathew Barzal were diplomatic about it after the game.

Strome, the captain of the Erie Otters, said that he had talked a little bit to Barzal leading up to the Mastercard Memorial Cup but didn’t go any further.

“It was all business out there [on the ice],” he said.

Barzal, the captain of the Seattle Thunderbirds, didn’t make it personal.

“I love playing against top-end players,” Barzal said. “It brings out the best in everybody. It’s fun competing against those guys.”

Saturday afternoon Strome’s OHL champions beat Barzal’s WHL champions 4-2, the respective teams’ first games in the national championship tournament.

As Strome suggested it was all business, Erie three times taking a one-goal lead, Seattle coming back to tie it twice. The outcome remained in doubt right down to an empty-net goal that secured Erie’s win with just over a minute left to play. The Otters went about their business through the first two periods, hemming the Thunderbirds in their own end with a relentless forecheck.

It wasn’t quite as Barzal suggested — the game didn’t bring the best of out of everybody. Seattle looked tired even though no one in the losing side would admit to fatigue from the playoff grind or travel to get Windsor.

The Otters had 35 shots to the T-birds’ 20 and the margin in quality scoring chances were probably closer to 3-to-1, which you could attribute in large part to Seattle’s troubles with the Erie forecheck. For their part, the Otters usually bury the puck more.

The game really brought the best out of one player: Carl Stankowski, a just-turned-17-year-old goaltender who played in only seven regular-season games before taking the Thunderbirds on a run through the Western Hockey League playoffs.

The teams traded goals in the second period. Alex DeBrincat, who has scored 167 regular-season goals across the last three seasons, opened the scoring for the Otters on a power play five minutes in. Scott Eansor, a little buzzsaw centre for Seattle, tied the game four minutes later.

In the second period Jordan Sambrook walked in from the point with Anthony Cirelli running a little interference for him and then finally beat Stankowski. Sambrook’s goal came on Erie’s 17th shot of the period, while the Thunderbirds had managed just four to that point. At 2-1, you would have assumed that the Otters were in position to break the game open. Didn’t turn out that way.

Just a couple of shifts later Barzal found defenceman Austin Strand at the point and he launched a wrist shot through traffic that beat Otters goalie Troy Timpano. Two-apiece going into the third.

“Being 2-2 going into the third is a pretty good spot,” Barzal said. “But we have to be a little more desperate and try to dictate our pace of play. I thought they were playing their game more than we were playing ours.”

The winner was scored by Strome, who drove the net and finished off a pass from his right-winger Taylor Raddysh. Strome had Seattle’s strongest forward, Keegan Kolesar, draped all over his back but fought through the check.

The chat with Barzal that Strome mentioned wasn’t jawing in the warm-ups — at least not from what I could tell.

Strome and Barzal have been teammates twice, representing Canada at the world junior championship the last two years — in fact they worked in neat tandem on the Canadian power play at this year’s tournament. They are centres but that’s where the similarities cease. Strome’s long, lanky and not exactly graceful. He likes to slow the game to his pace. Barzal, on the other hand, is compact, constantly churning, daring you to try to keep up.

When Strome, the third-overall pick in the 2015 draft, was sent down by Arizona after a handful of games with the Coyotes last fall, Barzal reached out and offered encouraging words.

You’d never suspect it watching them going head to head in Windsor. Watching them trade slashes across each other’s Achilles tendons you’d presume they were long-time blood rivals instead of former teammates. And maybe I missed some pre-game trash-talk on the ice.

When the Otters looked at the results from the Dub they had to imagine that the Seattle Thunderbirds did their dirty work for them.

In the WHL championship series, the Thunderbirds upset the Regina Pats, the CHL’s top-ranked team all season. In fact, in the CHL’s final set of rankings, OHL champion Erie was slotted No. 2 and Seattle didn’t make it into the top 10. The Otters’ job at the Memorial Cup looked like it had been made significantly easier then, not necessarily now, though.

Seattle’s best period was the third period, with a bunch of quality chances to tie the game and a couple of shots off the post. The last best chance was Barzal’s with less than five minutes left, right on the doorstep of Timpano. It wouldn’t surprise if these two teams met again in the tournament and maybe in the final and, if they do, there’s every reason to imagine that the game will pick up right where the third period left off.

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