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January 19, 2012

At The Midway Point: Top Five Games of 2011-2012, thus far

by Alex Quevillon
The opening stages of the Ottawa 67's season had it's ups and downs. Many fans expected Ottawa to dominate this season, and there was a little bit of doubt as they blew a few leads, took a few tough losses and fell out of the CHL's rankings and seemingly out of the top tier in the OHL. But by the time 2012 had rolled around, this team has fought back, finding themselves tops in the Eastern Conference for the better part of the campaign's first half. They've also given us some really exciting contests along the way. Here's part one of two, featuring the top games thus far.


Honourable Mention:

Czech Republic vs. USA, December 30th - Mrazek Dazzles

The only reason this game is in the honourable mention section, and not on the top-five list (it would be high on that list, too) is because it technically didn't involve the Ottawa 67's. But for Junior Hockey fans that didn't acknowledge the 67's before, this game put us on their map.

Petr Mrazek, representing his home Czech Republic in the Under-20 World Junior Hockey Championships, made 53 saves, celebrated every Czech goal in a more emphatic way than the last, and almost had a goal of his own, firing the puck right by the United States empty net.

Fans across the country watched on in amazement of this newfound character. 67's fans sat in front of the TV beaming with pride, seeing the character we've grown to thoroughly enjoy watching for the past two and a half years put on a world class show. Remember, the game was on TSN, they have a field day when it comes to name dropping Junior teams. The 67's must have been mentioned a couple dozen times during Czech Republic's entire tournament.

Ottawa vs. Québec, September 5th - Pre-season Fight Fest

This one could have been up high on the list had it been a regular season game, and had it been against an opponent that wasn't from another league. Still, Ottawa fans were given quite the interesting Labour Day contest.

Despite having lost to our neighboring Gatineau Olympiques in last year's QMJHL playoffs, Québec was labelled to be a serious contender in The Q. The selling point of this game, and a real reason for optimism, Russian Remparts forward Mikhail Grigorenko, did not disappoint, scoring two goals.

This game was also a bit of an experiment for the Canadian Hockey League, too. Ottawa's yearly matchups vs. Hull/Gatineau had been banned, supposedly for the amount of on-ice violence. If that really is the CHL's reasoning, then don't expect there to be any future games between Quebec's Capital and Canada's Capital; this one got nasty.

Québec's star players, Captain Mikael Tam and forward Frédérick Roy, son of head coach and NHL legend Patrick Roy, did anything to take Ottawa's players out of the game - everything short of dropping the gloves. After all, in OHL-sanctioned pre-season games, one fight is an automatic game misconduct.

Finally, however, things boiled over. After a Taylor Fielding goal in the third period, Fielding, Ryan Shipley, Sean Monahan, Brett Gustavsen and Ryan Van Stralen took exception to a late hit, leading to a full-scaled 5-on-5 linebrawl. Dalton Smith and Michal Cajkovsky proceeded to drop the gloves in the next few minutes, quickly taking their respective opponents to the ice. The two teams combined for 162 penalty minutes.

Despite the Remparts having played an entire pre-season before this game, and the 67's having no games and one practice, Ottawa got 3rd-period goals from Fielding, Smith and Monahan. Roy had a goal disallowed in the final minute, and Ottawa hung on for the 3-2 win. The game may not have counted for anything, but it was clear, this wasn't the same team as last year. The 67's made it clear that nobody would come into Landsdown and push them around.

5) October 23rd vs. Kitchener - Road Gut Check

Generally, if an OHL team gives up an early 2-0 lead on the road, on a Sunday afternoon, they tend to lay back, try to stop the bleeding and let the clock run out. To make matters worse, Captain Marc-Anthony Zanetti suffered a broken foot blocking a shot in Niagara three nights before. But Ottawa didn't back off.

Taking advantage of an undisciplined Rangers squad, the 67's fired back with four consecutive second-period goals, three of them on the powerplay. Jake Cardwell moved up into Zanetti's spot, playing with Cody Ceci, as both of the blueliners registered goals on the man advantage. A Steven Janes empty netter was the nail in the coffin, as Ottawa coasted the final two minutes to a 6-3 road win.

This win gave Ottawa a 2-1 record on the road weekend, and they went on to win the following Thursday night in Peterborough, setting up the following:

4) October 28th, vs. Mississauga - Established Eastern Powerhouse

This was the game where the 67's had to prove that they could hang with the top-tier teams in the Eastern Conference, and they did just that. Mississauga had only lost three games on the year heading into this contest and the red-hot JP Anderson looked unbeatable.

The game dragged on. Mississauga was playing the trap to perfection and without Tyler Graovac in the lineup, the 67's were relying on several wingers to play at center. Ottawa's only line with a centerman, Sean Monahan with Shane Prince and Tyler Toffoli, combined for three goals, Toffoli's second of the game tying it at 3 with less than 10 minutes to go.

Aside from Ottawa's top line, Petr Mrazek ended up being a huge difference maker. Russian rookie Sergey Kuptsov was awarded a penalty shot midway through the second period. Mrazek, who had been run over by Kuptsov earlier in the frame, stopped the forward's attempt, gave him a love tap on the way by and celebrated with one of his fist pumps, a celebration that would become hated and then celebrated across the country a couple months later.

Mrazek also stopped all three attempts in the game-deciding shootout, and Monahan fired a wrister past Anderson to give Ottawa the win. Say what you want about the shootout, I'm not a fan of it to be honest, but to get two points out of a game with hardly any respectable pace for the first 65 minutes put Ottawa in the conference's top spot. Ottawa was featured in the CHL's top-10 rankings the next week. This game helped establish the Barberpoles as a big named team in the East.

3) Rememberance Day (November 11th), vs. Saginaw - Remember McFarland?

One of many high scoring events early in the season was almost completely taken over by an opposing player. Who would've known that said player would become a very familiar face in the near future. Dressed in their commemorative Rememberance Day jersies, the 67's fired 62 shots at the Saginaw net and scored three goals through the first two periods.

But their efforts were matched by the efforts of the Spirit's top forward. By the halfway point of the third period, John McFarland had racked up four goals and an assist, giving his team a late 5-3 lead. A pair of late goals by Tyler Toffoli and Michal Cajkovsky, his first as a 67, sent the game to overtime.

The game went to a shootout, which went seven shooters long. As was the case through most of the game, McFarland was the only shooter to score for Saginaw. Brett Gustavsen tied the shootout, however, allowing Dalton Smith to score the game winner. Obviously Ottawa liked what they saw in the game's sharp shooter and first star. On January 6th, the 67's packaged David Perklin and a fourth round pick to Saginaw for McFarland.

2) September 23rd vs. Belleville - Home Opener

A very highly touted game as it marked the beginning of a season with very high expectations. The game was slightly marred, however, by Dalton Smith's vicious high hit on Belleville goaltender Malcolm Subban. Smith was tossed from the game and given a 10-game suspension, the second season in a row that he had picked up a suspension on opening night.

Ottawa fans were treated to a rough-and-tumble game that had the same number of scraps as it did goals. Okay, when the score is 2-1, that isn't so outstanding. But it certainly set the pace for Ottawa's season. Cody Ceci started off his draft year with the winning goal. Petr Mrazek shut the door with 25 stops to preserve the win.

Ottawa went 2-for-2 on the weekend, beating Kingston 6-2 on the Sunday. The unbeaten streak didn't last longer than a week, but the 2-0 start, and in particular holding on to win the opening game, had to have helped the 67's get where they are now.

1) December 2nd, vs. Windsor - National Spotlight

This matchup was featured on National Television, which is probably a good thing seeing as it featured a little bit of everything. Windsor scored just 15 seconds into the game and right of the bat, it looked as though the middle-of-the-road Western team would run away with their 2nd win of the season vs. Ottawa. Shane Prince quickly answered, though, tying the game at 1-1 and igniting Ottawa's teddy bear toss. The game was delayed for upwards of 20 minutes as the stuffed animals were cleaned off the ice and it felt like a whole new game.

Windsor fired back, taking a 3-1 lead. Between goals, a pair of scraps looked as though they would set the tone for a physical night in the Nation's Capital.

The first fight had to be expected. Ty Bilcke had been (and continued on) fighting his way through the OHL, the rookie leading in penalty minutes for the majority of the season. He had hardly lost, and had already beat Michal Cajkovsky in the first meeting. Bilcke landed a few big punches at the start of this fight, trading heavy punches with Smith. Smith switched to his left hand and started pounding on the 17-year old. Bilcke, a rare loser in tilts, was badly bloodied and left the ice. Sportsnet analysts labelled it as the fight of the year in the OHL. Ryan Van Stralen fought Nick Czinder shortly thereafter, but it was clear that the Smith-Bilcke fight was the main event.

Oh, there was some actual hockey, too. Van Stralen got Ottawa to within a goal and Nicholas Foglia tied it, setting up a dramatic and controversial overtime that was watched across the country.

Smith, looking no worse for wear after his first-period heavyweight tilt, jammed the puck into Windsor's net while goaltender John Cullen, who was out of his net from a Shane Prince deke, lost his mask and protested the non-call to on-ice officials in absolute outrage. After a lengthy review, it was confirmed that the goal did in fact count.

Cullen continued his tirade, going after Cajkovsky and Jake Cardwell in their celebration. The short tantrum didn't have an affect on the 67's. They had won one of the most exciting games of the year, and everyone in Canada had the chance to see it.

And with that, the top five (well, seven, sort of) games of 2011. Continue reading the Ottawa 67's Fan Blog as we cover the 67's second half! Furthermore, check back in during the last week of March, I'll be back with a top-10 list, including some of these. Here's hoping that the second half is as exciting as the first!