The Niagara IceDogs have been the OHL’s biggest underdogs in the 2016 playoffs. It’s been quite the ride for the club after their mostly disappointing regular season that saw them finish fourth in the Eastern Conference despite having a large collection of high-quality players.
They have since made the postseason look almost comically easy, going 12-1 through the first three rounds with their only loss coming in their first round series against the Ottawa 67’s. That’s pretty amazing, considering the opposition in the next two rounds: the dominant, first-seed Kingston Frontenacs and the veteran, high-scoring Barrie Colts.
Aside from Josh Ho-Sang, the IceDogs are not the most star-studded team in the league. They have Brendan Perlini (who will miss the first three games of the fourth round due to suspension), Pavel Jenys and Stephen Harper, but this isn’t a team that can even be compared to their OHL Championship opponents, the London Knights, in terms of overall depth.
The Knights are built to win. In fact, they are usually always built to win, thanks to the best scouting and developing staffs in the league, but a little bit of luck was involved in the process this year. Several Knights draftees, including those who were previously committed elsewhere (such as college), chose to play major junior hockey in London this year, and it has made all the difference.
Among them is defenseman Olli Juolevi, a Knights pick in last summer’s Canadian Hockey League Import Draft who chose to leave his native land of Finland, as well as former Notre Dame-bound offensive stud Matthew Tkachuk who rescinded his prior commitment.
It has paid off as the Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak-led squad, bolstered by its many new recruits, is headed to their third OHL Final in the past five years.
Everyone’s favorite at this point has got to be the Knights. Marner is on a different planet in terms of scoring, leading the league in playoff scoring 37 points (15G, 22A) in just 14 games. Those are some 2015-OHL-playoff-Connor McDavid-like numbers, and with a little more time, he may even eclipse the former Erie Otters captain’s point total (49 in 20 games).
First-year pro Tkachuk is right behind him at No. 2 in the league with 33 points, including a second-best 16 goals (behind only Barrie’s Justin Scott’s 17), while Dvorak is third with 26 points, so it is safe to assume that the Knights have their top scorers rolling right now.
But it’s hard to write off the IceDogs, who have had quite the inspiring run as of late. It’s been a pleasant surprise for a Niagara team that probably didn’t expect to get past the Kingston Frontenacs with such ease. Even we at Today’s Slapshot predicted that they would not get out of their second- or third-round series, and now it has become incredibly difficult to imagine them going down after proving twice that they wouldn’t falter.
The London Knights are not just another top team, though. The Knights have a unique mix of veteran and young talent, both of which are excelling at almost too lofty a pace to be realistic. Their goaltending has also been unreal, as Tyler Parsons leads all playoff teams in save percentage (0.924) and goals against average (2.27), and the defense has been absolutely stalwart.
Alex Nedeljkovic has provided exceptional goaltending in his own right for the IceDogs this postseason, ranking second behind Parsons in both categories by narrow margins (as well as tying for first in wins with 12), but it still won’t be enough to stop a stacked Knights team. London has all four of its lines rolling right now, playing the kind of insanely successful hockey a coach can usually only dream of, and it is going to be incredibly difficult even for the hottest team out of the East to stop them at this point.
The Knights seem to be on a crash-course for yet another shot at the Memorial Cup Tournament, where it appears that they have a pretty good shot at winning it all this year in Red Deer.
Prediction: London wins in 5