Sports

Teamhas yet to miss post-season play in 10 seasons playing in Niagara

By Bernd Franke, Postmedia News

Niagara IceDogs forward Akil Thomas, right, being defended by the Sudbury Wolves in Ontario Hockey League action Saturday night at Meridian Centre in St. Catharines. BERND FRANKE/Postmedia Network

Niagara IceDogs forward Akil Thomas, right, being defended by the Sudbury Wolves in Ontario Hockey League action Saturday night at Meridian Centre in St. Catharines. BERND FRANKE/Postmedia Network

The Niagara IceDogs weren’t in the same arena when their ticket to the Ontario Hockey League playoffs was punched.

 

They weren’t even in the same area code.

While the IceDogs closed out the regular season Sunday afternoon with a 6-1 road loss to the Mississauga Steelheads, the Kingston Frontenacs, 320 kilometres away as the puck flies, closed out the North Bay Battalion.

Kingston rebounded from a 3-1 deficit for a 5-4 victory that eliminated North Bay from contention for the eighth, and final, playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

That spot, and a first-round matchup against the top-seeded Peterborough Petes, belongs to the IceDogs, who finished two points ahead of the Battalion in the standings and qualified for the playoffs for the 10th time in the 10-year history of the franchise despite closing out the season with three straight losses.

For Niagara, Kingston’s solid on the final day of league play for most clubs in the 20-team loop prevented the need to travel to North Bay for a play-in game Tuesday night.

Though a Battalion victory would have left the teams tied at 56 points, North Bay would have had home ice for the playoff qualifier due to having more regulation wins during the regular season.

“I would rather stick warm knitting needles in my eyes than go to North Bay on Tuesday,” a relieved IceDogs head coach Dave Bell said after the playoff picture finally came into focus.

Niagara needed help it keep the franchise’s remarkable playoff streak alive but Bell dismissed the suggestion the IceDogs will be going into the playoffs through the back door. He said every point counts in the standings, whether the point is earned at the beginning of the season in September or into the final push to the playoffs in mid-March.

“That’s why you play 68 games,” he said. “It’s funny how it works. The very first game of the season we beat North Bay up there, and those two points come back to haunt them.

“No, we didn’t ‘win in,’ but I believe we did win in, because we got more points than them over the course of 68 games.

“We’re in, they’re not.”

The shift in focus, away from the 0-2 weekend and onto the opening round of the playoffs, was more than evident when Bell was asked his takeaway from the loss to Mississauga.

“Today’s game? It was 5-4, Kingston.”

He attributed the season-ending loss to the Steelheads to Jacob Ingham’s continued standout play between the Mississauga pipes — “He’s a good young goalie, he’s a great player for them,” the coach said — and Niagara’s difficulty from rebounding from Saturday’s loss to Sudbury.

“We put a lot of emotion into last night’s game and it’s tough to turn around after a tough loss like that.”

Niagara closed out the regular season with Ryan Mantha, the team captain and it’s top defenceman, out of the lineup serving a two-game suspension. Bell said the void on the blue-line put increased pressure on the younger defencemen.

“Your young back end after playing a lot of minutes last night had to come back on play a lot of minutes this afternoon. That’s tough on them, and we have some guys who are banged up right now.”

The IceDogs entered the weekend of the regular season needing only to get one point in their final two games to enter the playoffs through the front door, but they were unable to force overtime on either occasion.

Closest they came to earning a consolation point was Saturday night when they dropped a 4-3 decision to the Sudbury Wolves before a season-record attendance of 5,453 at Meridian Centre. Kirill Maksimov scored on the power play 4:16 into the third period, for his 21st goal of the season, to make it a one-goal game, but one-time Caledonia Corvairs netminder Mackenzie Savard shut Niagara out the rest of the way.

Matthew Titus tapped in a rebound on Mississauga’s third shot of the game to give the Steelheads the lead 3:08 into the first period.

Trent Fox scored from the slot on the first power play of game to put the hosts up 2-0.

It was all Mississauga on the scoreboard until Pavel Denim rounded out the scoring with 4:07 remaining in regulation for his fourth goal of the season for Niagara.

Danial Singer and Oliver Castleman opened the scoring for the IceDogs in the loss to the Wolves.

’Dog Biscuits: The IceDogs are having a team dinner today celebrating their 10th consecutive trip to the playoffs. The only other OHL team that can boast that are the defending Memorial Cup champion London Knights … Six school buses, filled with fans, accompanied the IceDogs on the round-trip to Mississauga for the last game of the regular season … In an on-ice ceremony before Saturday night’s game, IceDogs owners Billy and Denise Burke presented the team’s overagers — Justin Brack, Aaron Haydon and Ryan Mantha — with commemorative photos to recognize their contributions to the team. Haydon also received a watch for playing five seasons in the OHL, all with Niagara … The final home game of the regular season was the 12th sellout of the 2016-17 campaign attracting a season-high 5,453.

BFranke@postmedia.com

 



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