The second round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs has been largely lopsided in the favor of the host teams of each series — all except for the Kingston Frontenacs in their Eastern Conference match-up against the Niagara IceDogs.
The Frontenacs are in the second round for the first time since 1998, an accomplishment that gave fans who suffered for so long something to be excited about. Kingston had a remarkable quarterfinal experience in eliminating the defending Memorial Cup champion Oshawa Generals, defeating their opponent 6-0 in both the series opener and closer.
Defenseman Roland McKeown, previously criticized for his lack of offensive output throughout his OHL career, has had a break-out postseason so far, tallying 12 points (3G, 9A) in just eight games which places him second in scoring among defensemen in the playoffs. Spencer Watson and Michael Dal Colle are near the top of the league in playoff scoring, with 17 and 18 points respectively; but the latter cannot seem to out-do his fellow New York Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang and the rest of the surging IceDogs in the semi-final round.
Ho-Sang and co. have put the East’s first-seed in a tricky 3-0 hole, meaning that every game from now until the conclusion of the series will be an elimination game. It would be a major upset for Kingston to lose at this point, especially considering all the moves made throughout the season and the fact that several of their key players will be graduating to the NHL next fall.
But one team’s plight would be the other’s benefit. Niagara entered the postseason as the fourth-seed, having had a fairly up-and-down 2015-16 regular season that ended on a positive note (they shut-out the Mississauga Steelheads 3-0 in their season finale). And now, the IceDogs have shown that they are committed to going farther in the playoffs than most had expected them to go.
“We enjoyed winning the first series [against the Ottawa 67’s] and the guys want to follow that up against Kingston,” IceDogs captain Anthony DiFruscia told thewhig.com. “We’ve found ways to win and I can’t stress enough how well Ned (goalie Alex Nedeljkovic) is playing.
“We had a roller-coaster season and we’ve been through a lot as a team. That made us stronger as a team and now in the playoffs we are playing well as a team and well for each other. Everybody wants to win and give the guy beside them a pat and say they are playing for them.”
IceDogs’ Alex Nedeljkovic named Vaughn CHL Goaltender of the Week #MakeEmSeeNED https://t.co/1H4W5sriIY pic.twitter.com/02woe7peTc
— Niagara IceDogs (@OHLIceDogs) April 13, 2016
After scoring the game-winning goal in Niagara’s 3-1 Game 1 victory, DiFruscia again scored the game-winner in overtime to take a key Game 2 victory (by a score of 6-5) in Kingston. Heading back home to the Meridian Centre for Game 3, the IceDogs won their second consecutive game in overtime, this time as part of a much closer, lower-scoring contest (they won 3-2).
As DiFruscia said, Nedeljkovic has been outstanding in the Kingston series. He has stopped over 30 shots in each of the three games, including a 47-save performance in Game 2. Ho-Sang has been the catalyst up front, scoring a team-high 15 points (3G, 12A) in eight games.
He’s come a long way since being cut during Islanders training camp during the fall due to “character issues” which, really, just amounted to sleeping in and missing practice. The incident clearly motivated him, as he had a career year and is lighting it up in the postseason, leading his team to within one win of a conference final appearance.
The IceDogs will face the Frontenacs in an elimination Game 4 tonight, and with the Barrie Colts leading the North Bay Battalion 3-0 in the other Eastern Conference series, odds are the two leaders will face-off in the conference final. There’s still time for Kingston or North Bay to make the comeback and complete the reverse-sweep, but it’s highly unlikely.
Regardless, the IceDogs have to be feeling pretty good about themselves right now.