This time last year, Connor McDavid’s game had just begun to take off again after an injury and the 2015 World Junior Tournament kept him out of Ontario Hockey League play for almost two months. The Erie Otters had survived their generational captain’s absence with Dylan Strome taking de facto leader responsibilities and the rest of the team providing the depth to post enough wins to finish second in the Western Conference.
They made it all the way to the OHL Final against the Oshawa Generals, but McDavid’s inspired playoff performance was not enough for the Otters to muster up four wins to advance to the Memorial Cup Final.
This year, there are plenty of familiar storylines with regard to Pennsylvania’s lone OHL team, but each with a twist: McDavid just returned from an injury that kept him sidelined since November, but he is now with the Edmonton Oilers; Dylan Strome is leading the way, but this time he is the franchise center and captain; and finally, likely to no one’s surprise, the Otters have clinched a playoff spot–albeit in January, which is an incredibly rare task for OHL teams to accomplish.
Congrats 1st place @ErieOtters first to officially clinch berth in #OHLPlayoffs. STANDINGS: https://t.co/WFmpGRolCH pic.twitter.com/LQOE2TWNkV
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) February 1, 2016
The Otters clinched on Friday in a 6-2 victory over their rival London Knights. Despite the absence of team-leading scorer Alex DeBrincat and rising star Taylor Raddysh due to the Top Prospects Game the night before, Erie had stellar performances from their supporting cast; they were, however, led by veterans Dylan Strome (2G) and Darren Raddysh (2A).
Otters forward Nick Betz told The London Free Press after the game, “It’s an overall, well-rounded effort. London’s a great hockey team. We know how good they are at home and to get a win here, it’s quite a thing for us. We beat a very good hockey team.”
The Otters are mathematically on pace to win 56 games this season, and because they lost one game in overtime, that would give them roughly a total of 113 points (subject to change if future losses occur in overtime) at the end of the regular season. They are favorites to clinch first place in both the Western Conference and the OHL; and while those achievements should be in main focus at the moment, it has got to be in the back of the Otters’ minds that they have a chance to redeem themselves in the OHL Final this year and advance to the Memorial Cup.
With three top-20 scorers in the league (as of February 3), the Otters’ offense has clearly been their biggest asset this season. Top 2016 NHL Draft prospect Alex DeBrincat got off to a tremendous, record-setting start this season, posting 31 goals and 21 assists in just 25 games (at the end of November). His point-scoring (and more troubling, his goal-scoring) has dipped significantly, though he still maintains the eighth spot among OHL scoring leaders with 65 points (36G, 29A) in just 39 games played.
Taylor Raddysh–fellow 2016 prospect and linemate of DeBrincat–has had a break-out season for the Otters, posting 55 points (18G, 37A) in 46 games. But the team’s leading scorer and captain, Dylan Strome, has taken it to another level this season; he is tied with the Knights’ Mitch Marner for third in league scoring with 73 points in just 35 games played. Strome’s confidence has surged this season, and Erie’s captain has essentially become the face of the OHL (despite Christian Dvorak’s excellence in his final year of junior eligibility).
This is why you don't take penalties against the Erie Otters. https://t.co/vsRrPUtbKmhttps://t.co/N6R2svNZgEhttps://t.co/YXdl1qUgKB
— Kathryn Jean (@msconduct) February 2, 2016
As of February 3, the Otters are first place in the OHL with 79 points, leading the second-place Kitchener Rangers by seven points and the faltering London Knights by eight. No other team in the league is a threat to them at this point, at least in regular-season competition/standings. In fact, the Otters are the best in the entire Canadian Hockey League right now, leading all 60 major junior clubs in wins with 39.
The playoffs are still about a month and a half away, but the Erie Otters are proving that they are already in post-season mode with their dominant play as of late–they’re determined to get to the Memorial Cup tournament this year.