By Ned Bekavac
Guelph Storm captain Matt Finn relished his team’s Kodak moment on Friday night, getting to hoist the Wayne Gretzky Trophy as OHL Western Conference champs, and getting to do so in front of a sold out Sleeman Centre.
But he’s quite prepared to tuck that photo away, for the moment at least, and make room for another – the big picture.
“It was very exciting,” he said in an OHL conference call Tuesday, of celebrating the Storm’s West series clinching win over Erie in Game 5 Friday.
“It’s something you don’t get a lot of chances (to do), a lot of cracks at.”
He said: “We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied. We’re not done yet.”
Guelph enters the Ontario Hockey League championship series, which starts tonight, as big favourites over the North Bay Battalion. The Storm finished with 26 more points than North Bay this season, and they scored 120 goals more than them.
Despite the numbers, Storm coach Scott Walker expects the Battalion to be tough foe, and the series to be a hotly contested one.
“This time of year, If you make it through to this series, you’re playing well,” said Walker, during the conference call.
“They’re a big, strong, well-coached hockey team and they’re going to be ready to go. We have to make sure we’re up to the task,” said the bench boss.
The high-octane Storm have five players in the top 10 in OHL scoring in the playoffs. North Bay, despite having played two more games, has just one.
Lots has been said about the Storm’s fire power up front. And not much needs to be said – the team, chock full of potential future NHL talent, scored a league-leading 340 goals in 68 games this season. They haven’t slowed down in the playoffs either, they’ve scored 73 goals in 15 games.
Battalion coach Stan Butler feels the make-up of his team is quite different; there aren’t a pile of big-name high-scoring stars to speak of.
“We have an extremely strong group, good leadership and a balanced team. That’s our strength,” he said.
And then there is the Storm’s defense. Butler, a veteran coach, doesn’t hesitate to heap huge praise on the Storm’s blue-liners when the subject is brought up.
“They’ve got as good a group of six ‘D’ as I’ve seen,” said Butler.
Walker says that this time of year, it’s not so much about systems when the teams get out there with the league title on the line.
It’s about things like blocking shots, or taking a hit to make a play, he says.
“It’s all about hard hockey,” Walker says.
While the Storm, with home ice advantage, can get away with winning the series without a win on the road, Finn thinks they can get the job done in North Bay, which is proving to be a tough place to play for visitors.
Since early December, playoffs included, the Battalion have 25 wins and seven losses on home ice.
They will be buoyed by a pumped up crowd as the city continues to celebrate the return of OHL hockey; the Battalion moved from Brampton to North Bay to start this season. Battalion fans gobbled up tickets for the home games in the upcoming championship series in no time.
“They have a great fanbase there. (But) We played in London, in front of 10,000 people at Budweiser Gardens. They’re a pretty proud bunch, and we took two games there,” in the Storm’s second-round series win over the Knights, said Finn.
“We just have to be prepared, tune the crowd out and focus on our game.”
Battalion captain Barclay Goodrow says that playing in front of the loyal North Bay supporters this season after playing for Brampton teams that struggled to draw fans, has truly been special.
“To lift that (Eastern Conference) trophy in front of them was great,” he said.
But, like the Storm’s captain said, there is more work to be done.
“We’re not done either, we’re looking forward to a strong finish,” said Goodrow.
It was 10 years ago this week that the Storm won its first two games at home in their sweep of Mississauga in the 2003-2004 OHL final, the team’s last league championship win.
Signs suggest that this year’s Storm team could mark the 10-year anniversary by hoisting the 2013-2014 league title as well.
Cap’n Finn says the boys are just pumped for the puck to drop.
“Everyone is just excited to get it going,” he said.
Games 1 and 2 are tonight and Friday, respectively, at the Sleeman Centre.
Both games start at 7 p.m.
Games 3 and 4 are in North Bay on Tuesday and Wednesday, also at 7 p.m.