Barring a miraculous victory by their opponents in game four on Thursday, it appears as though the Erie Otters will not be hosting that much anticipated game at First Niagara Center, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
The Otters have absolutely dominated the eighth-seed Saginaw Spirit through the first three games of their quarterfinal match-up.
Game one was all about depth scoring. The team’s top line consisting of Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat and Taylor Raddysh struggled all season offensively when facing Saginaw, and it appeared as though that would continue to be a problem throughout the playoffs when the line only accounted for one assist on five Otters goals.
Game two was a different story, though, as all three scored power play goals consecutively, driving the team to an emphatic 7-3 win.
“I didn’t think we were going to get one [goal],” Strome told GoErie.com. “It felt good to finally come across one. It was just a matter of time before we finally broke through.”
Heading back to Saginaw, the Spirit had the opportunity to capitalize on their home-ice advantage, and it did give them somewhat of a boost during game three. For the first time in the series, the Spirit pulled even (they have yet to secure a lead) mid-way through the first period at 2-2, but just minutes later they let up an Alex DeBrincat goal. Needless to say, they failed to tie it up as the Otters pulled off a commanding 6-3 win.
“I’ve been in this situation as a player,” Spirit coach Moe Mantha told mlive.com. “Now it comes down to character… the organization is looking at players who want to play, who show attitude and character. The organization will find out who wants to put on a Spirit sweater next season.
“We’ve sat back and let the good team dictate what we do. Our message after this game is that on Thursday, let’s go and get the first period. They’re good, but sometimes we let them be good. We’re getting frustrated. When that happens, you start to play as individuals instead of as a team.”
That frustration has seemingly boiled over throughout the series:
Saginaw refused to speak to the media after the game. Players very upset in locker room. Overheard yelling from hallway.
— Mark Scheig (@THWMark) March 28, 2016
But despite being down 3-0 to the top team in the entire Ontario Hockey League, the underdogs still have a lot of fight left in them.
With the worst record and lowest point total during the regular-season among all 16 playoff teams, Saginaw is in a position where they are lucky to be playing in the postseason at all. They are here because the Flint Firebirds and Guelph Storm each had incredibly dismal seasons. Judging by the sheer dominance of the other seven Western Conference playoff teams (there is an 18-point gap between eighth-seed Saginaw and seventh-seed Soo Ste. Marie), the Spirit are among clubs that are out of their league, figuratively speaking.
The reality is that the Erie Otters, although sans former captain and major junior hockey wunderkind Connor McDavid this year, know what it takes to win in the OHL. They made it to the OHL Final last spring, where they lost to the eventual Memorial Cup champion Oshawa Generals, but their regular-season title in the 2015-16 season was a first for this group (they were third overall last year).
The only potential weakness the Otters have in the 2016 playoffs is their lack of depth. Although their offensive depth has contributed plenty in game one, a shortage of depth scoring could kill the Otters against some of the better teams in later rounds.
The DeBrincat-Strome-Raddysh line oozes talent and scoring prowess, but the last few weeks of the regular season was disheartening, as their top line wasn’t getting the job done. It’s easy for guys like Kyle Pettit and Nick Betz to score against a weak Saginaw club, but they can’t be relied upon to make the same kind of contribution against the best of the West (and East), if the Otters get far enough.
For now, though, Erie looks like the most dominant team in the playoffs as they did for most of the regular season. They will most likely take game four and finish the sweep, advancing to round two, but things may not be so easy in future series.