From the Stands
By Paul Osborne
It is a series that Storm fans having been waiting for and dreading all at the same time.
The home side faces off against the two-time defending Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal Friday night at the Sleeman Centre. They played each other six times this season with the home team winning on every occasion. The Knights outscored the Storm 28-27 in those games but Guelph earned an extra point because one of their losses in London was in overtime.
London certainly has playoff experience on their side while Guelph has a lot more depth on defence. Even before the Knights lost workhorse defenceman Zach Bell to a broken ankle in their series sweep of Windsor, Guelph boasted six quality defenceman, a rarity in junior hockey.
The Storm finished first in the regular season, but only five points ahead of the Knights. Guelph scored an eye-popping 340 goals, 24 more than London, and allowed 12 fewer. The 340 goals were the most scored in the OHL since the 1998-99 Barrie Colts scored 344.
London holds the advantage when it comes to experience behind the bench with Dale Hunter having won three OHL championships and coached in the NHL with Washington. But Guelph’s Scott Walker has enjoyed tremendous success since taking the reigns and won’t be underestimated, and Guelph assistant Bill Stewart helps balance that ledger with his two OHL championships as head coach in Barrie and Oshawa and his stint as the head coach of the New York Islanders.
It is close no matter how you cut it.
A big part of the story is who won’t be playing.
Out for the Storm is forward Brock McGinn, who still has six games remaining to serve on a suspension for a careless head hit in the first round. Star forward Robby Fabbri also missed most of the first round after being hit and it hasn’t been announced whether he’ll be ready to play.
The Knights will be missing goaltender Anthony Stolarz who was also suspended eight games for a one-handed pole-axe swing to the head of Windsor player Josh Ho-Sang in their first round sweep of Windsor. And as mentioned above the Knights, shallow on defence to begin with, have lost Bell for the season.
“We have to stay out of the box,” said Walker. “(They have a) great power play and they obviously play fast so hey, they are the kings of the castle and we have to try and knock them off. They are a good team.”
“It’s game on . . . it’s time to go to war,” said Storm forward Kerby Rychel. “They’re a deep team at every position and they have some world class players over there but so do we. Whether you’re the first forward or the 15th forward and we’re getting contributions from everyone right now.”
“It’s going to be a battle but we just have to play Guelph Storm hockey,” said Storm forward Tyler Bertuzzi who returned to the line-up in the series win over Plymouth after missing several weeks with a concussion.
“After the trades (for Rychel, Nick Ebert and Stephen Pierog) we knew we had a shot at winning the Memorial Cup and we just have to go into the next round with heart and soul.”
The loss of Stolarz will hurt the Knights but its the Storm’s depth on defence that I think gives them the real edge in the series. We saw them wear down the Whalers in the first round and that will be the difference against London as well.
Prediction: Guelph in six.