May 03, 2012

67's Season Wrap-Up: From Start To Finish

The 2011-2012 season has come to an end and although it’s finished sooner than we had hoped for at the start of the campaign, it was still a fun seven months to follow the Barberpoles. This piece will attempt to sum up and capture the excitement and different stages that we saw in the Nation’s Capital this year.

Rough & Tumble: A New Image
The 67’s set the tone before the season had even started. With the off-season acquisition of 6’4 defenceman Michal “Big Mike” Cajkovsky and rugged Smiths Falls Bears forward Ryan Van Stralen, the two of which combined for 193 penalty minutes in 2011-12, it was apparent that the team’s identity would be changed drastically. Tough defender Sean Callaghan also emerged as a regular in the lineup as a rookie. Ottawa quickly established themselves as a tough team to beat early in the year as they unleashed a newfound physical presence against the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts and divisional rivals Kingston and Belleville, who they opened the pre-season and regular season against. (Ironically, the 67’s finished the season with 67 fighting majors against the rest of the OHL.)

No Martindale, No Consistency
Losing your top-line center is never easy to overcome, and finding a top-line center isn’t easy to do either. This became the struggle when it was apparent that Ryan Martindale wouldn’t be returning to the Nation’s Capital, that he would instead be playing the remainder of the season in the Edmonton Oilers’ farm system.

Just as all hope wore off that we would see one of last season’s assistant captains returning, Sean Monahan and Tyler Graovac, the team’s only two natural centers, were out for extended periods  with assorted ailments. An excess number of natural wingers tried their hand to fill the void up the middle but it wasn’t enough. Ottawa’s only scoring, some nights, came from Tyler Toffoli and Shane Prince, nobody else. It was only a matter of time before an adjustment would have to be made at center.

Martindale finished the season with 15 points in 34 games with the East Coast Hockey League’s Stockton Thunder.

Mrazek Czechs In, 67’s score at will & clinch division
Petr Mrazek had his share of tough outings early in the season. Before Michael Nishi came on board as his backup, Mrazek would play the entirety of a three-game weekend regularly.   He was understandably worn out, but by the end of the calendar year, he’d made his mark on the hockey world.

With a miraculous and animated performance at the World Junior Under-20 Championships in Alberta, the Ostrava native donned the colours of his home country, the Czech Republic, after being denied a roster spot the previous two years. By the time he came home to Ottawa, Mrazek was a hero for his part in effectively knocking the United States out of the tournament.

Meanwhile, Chris Byrne was acquiring overaged center Mike Cazzola, brought in to play a similar role to that of now-graduated 67 Cody Lindsay, and winger John McFarland, who lit the 67’s up with four goals, an assist and a shootout goal in a November matchup, in exchange for first-round pick David Perklin. These acquisitions came after overaged defenceman Daniel Broussard joined the team, causing Ben Dubois to lose out to the numbers game. Dubois finished the year with St. Catharines of the GOJHL.

With the checking line of Dalton Smith, Graovac and Steven Janes, as well as the energetic Brett Gustavsen providing great insurance scoring, we saw games decided by scores of 9-0, 9-4, 8-3, etc in Ottawa’s favour. Mrazek didn’t even have to be on top of his game, the forwards (and especially the new ones, who helped rejuvenate Prince) were winning games on their own. But when the goaltender was stellar, it was an added bonus.

Not to mention, Cody Ceci and Jake Cardwell were playing some of the best hockey of their Junior career at the time. Defenceman Mike Vlajkov stepped up and played top-four minutes in December-January while Remy Giftopoulos played on the top line a few times and showed what he was capable of given lots of ice time.

With a number of lopsided wins against teams like the Oshawa Generals, Peterborough Petes and eventual playoff opponent Belleville Bulls, mixed with the Kingston Frontenacs’ year-long placement at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the 67’s coasted to become the OHL’s first division clinchers, their third consecutive East division title.

Injuries & Backing Into Postseason
I say that they “coasted” to a division win, because after this scoring spree, things started to fall apart again. The team unveiled in mid-February that McFarland would require season-ending shoulder surgery. The offence wasn’t nearly as dynamic and a lingering injury to Ryan Shipley, along with an eight-game suspension to Broussard, caused the defence to be quite depleted as well.

With the exception of a stellar road trip to start the month of March, the 67’s dropped a lot of frustrating games, and even the ones that they did win, they didn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders. They were destroyed twice by the first-place Niagara Ice Dogs and once by the London Knights, in games where they could have sent a message to the respective conference leaders and current OHL finalists.

Toffoli finished the campaign on a high note, however, with 50 goals for a second straight year and finished second in the OHL in scoring.

If the start of the 67’s playoff run were the regular season, they would have been off to an amazing start, because they didn’t lose a game in regulation until the third game of the second round. Unfortunately, their overtime record of 1-3 in that time span wasn’t so flattering, and they found themselves in a 2-2 tie after four games against the Belleville Bulls, a team they went 7-0-1 against in the regular season.

Ottawa did finish off the Bulls with two close wins, however, and finished off where they started with a dominant 5-1 win in the opening game of the second round. If they had managed to win a double-overtime thriller in Game Two, they may have had a smoother ride against the Barrie Colts. But a 65-save performance from Barrie’s Mathias Niederberger, followed by two Colts’ wins in Barrie, put the 67’s on the ropes quicker than they had expected.

Mrazek had a strange idiosyncrasy; allowing goals from far out. Once a game it seemed, he would allow a goal from just inside the blueline. And then stand on his head for the rest of the night. But Ottawa barely held on in Games Five and Six, a pair of one-goal games that set up one of the greatest games in team history.

A back-and-forth Game Seven had fans on the edge of their seats. With 25 seconds left, Ottawa looked to have won the game with a tiebreaking powerplay goal. Not so fast; the Colts rushed back down the ice to tie the game with eight seconds remaining. When Brett Gustavsen scored a sharp-angle goal in Overtime, it almost felt as though the 67’s had won the deciding game twice with the two thrilling goals.

The 67’s played a great road game in the opener against the Niagara Ice Dogs, but an overtime loss was topped off and marred by an incident that would eventually see Captain Marc-Anthony Zanetti suspended for the remainder of the postseason for kicking.

They still managed to put together a great second game, winning 7-4, but things came unravelled afterwards. Mrazek missed Game Three with the flu, and Ottawa dropped both games on home ice, identical 5-2 losses, even allowing Niagara goaltender Mark Visentin to score a goal. The Ice Dogs finished the series off in the fifth game in St. Catharines, and that was the end of the season for our guys.

With that, a great year came to an end as many had expected. The 67’s established themselves as a top-four team in the OHL. Janes, Taylor Fielding and Nicholas Foglia played some of their best hockey of the season. Every player played their role as well as possible. They weren’t a championship team, but they also didn’t sell the farm for this year’s run the way Niagara did. There’s still hope for next season.

Chris Byrne has a tough task ahead of him, though, to put another competitive team on the ice and hopefully defend an East Division Title that’s become a staple in the 67’s organization in the past few years. Not only will this team look a lot different, they’re going to be playing at a different arena. The outlook of this team will change drastically in 2012-13, and we’re looking forward to it. But we’re also going to look back on this as a great year.

Not mentioned: Due to their lack of games played, four players weren't mentioned in the rest of the story. But they were still a part of our season and definitely deserve mention. Goaltender Jacob Blair backed up Nishi during the holiday season with Mrazek out. We hope to see more of him next season. Shayne Campbell and Karsten Pankhurst only made one start in between the pipes each. OHL veteran Ryan MacLean had one point in three games while late-season signing Daniel Walsh appeared in five games with Ottawa.

See also: "67's Season Wrap-Up: From Behind the Lens" from Valerie .

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