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From the Stands: Storm a big favourite in OHL final

From the Stands
By Paul Osborne

For the first time since 2004, the Guelph Storm will fight for the Ontario Hockey League championship.

They knocked off the Erie Otters 5-0 before a sold-out, raucous Sleeman Centre crowd Friday to win the Wayne Gretzky Trophy and Western Conference final four games to one.

They will now play the North Bay Battalion beginning with games one and two in Guelph Thursday and Friday night.

“I think our leadership was great, I think our goaltending was superb,” said Guelph coach Scott Walker looking back at the win over Erie. “But I wonder if having to go through Plymouth, who played us extremely hard, and then playing London which was a hugely emotional and hard, hard hockey series, and I’m not discounting what Erie did, but I’m not so sure their series got them as ramped up as our series did.  I really feel the (path) that we had to go through probably prepared us the best for this series.”

It also prepares them well for North Bay and makes them the clear favourite going in. Playing in a much weaker conference, the Battalion finished with 26 points fewer than the Storm. They scored an incredible 120 goals fewer than Guelph while allowing just two goals fewer.

If you look at the scoring leaders during the playoffs, and remember, the Storm has had to defeat the other two best teams in the league to get to this point, Guelph has five scorers in the top nine, Brampton one. When it comes to plus-minus, the Storm hold down seven of the first nine spots with North Bay players seventh and ninth.

We know that the Battalion can play defense, that has always been a hallmark of coach Stan Butler’s style, and that hasn’t changed in the postseason, giving up an average of just over two goals a game. The Storm has given up 2.7 goals per game but they have scored 4.9 while North Bay has averaged exactly 3.0.

While the numbers weigh heavily in the Storm’s favour, the Battalion are a scrappy bunch. They were down 3-1 to Niagara in the first round but battled back to win the series. They then defeated Barrie in six games before stunning Oshawa in four straight. Forward Barclay Goodrow is having a tremendous playoff, with 11 goals and 21 points, and netminder Jake Smith has a stingy 2.01 goals against average. Guelph netminder Justin

Nichols is playing like he has all season – rarely does he lead the league in stats, he just wins – and his .921 save percentage (Smith .919) says it’s no fluke.

One area where the teams are similar is the offence it receives from its defencemen. The Battalion’s Brenden Miller leads all D-men in the playoffs with 15 points, while teammates Kyle Wood (9), and Dylan Blujus (7) aren’t afraid to jump into the rush. By comparison, the Storm has Nick Ebert (12), Matt Finn (10), Steven Trojanovic (8) and Zac Leslie (7).

In reality, the only thing that could prevent Guelph from prevailing is overconfidence. Granted North Bay is playing their best hockey of the season but the Storm is the best team hands down, from the best division in the best conference. This is a very special team.

Coach Walker put it best.

“Yeah we have a lot of guys that score,” he said, “But you didn’t see our guys winning a lot of the (league) awards and it’s great because I see guys smiling when other people score, I see guys cheering on guys when they’re blocking shots, and that’s a team.”

Prediction: Guelph in four.

Series schedule:
Game 1: Thursday, at Guelph, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Friday, at Guelph, 7 p.m.
Game 3: Tuesday May 6, at North Bay, 7 p.m.
Game 4:  Wednesday May 7, at North Bay, 7 p.m.
* Game 5: Friday May 9, at Guelph, 7 p.m.
* Game 6: Sunday May 11, at North Bay, 2 p.m.
* Game 7: Monday May 12, at Guelph, 7 p.m.
* Games 5, 6, 7 if necessary

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