The 2021-2022 regular season came to an end Saturday night in Niagara for the Barrie Colts and while a 6-3 win was certainly welcome, arriving at this point was alone a cause for celebration.
After a cancelled season last year and all the Ontario Hockey League, Canada as a country and the entire world has been through the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to get in a full 68-game schedule and battle through numerous postponed games and much adversity was a big victory in itself for the Colts and the entire league.
“Sixty-eight games, that’s the exciting thing,” said Barrie head coach Marty Williamson after his team’s win over the IceDogs at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines. “We talked about this so much at the beginning. Were we going to get a full year, are we going to get fans and all those things?
“Now we’ve done the full year and it’s been an endearing year.”
The win snapped a seven-game losing streak for Barrie (34-27-6-1), which will now prepare for the opening game of its best-of-seven first-round playoff series against the Steelheads in Mississauga next Friday night.
It’s been a stress-filled second half for the Colts, who had to jam nine postponed games into a short period down the stretch, deal with lengthy suspensions to three of its biggest stars and battle through numerous injuries that kept up to five regulars out for big stretches during the four months.
“Just talking to the guys I can’t even remember our lineup in November when we had Oskar (Olausson) and we had (Nicholas) Porco, it just seems so long ago,” added Williamson. “This second half has been so draining and that’s why I just think it was good for the guys to just get a win. They need a couple of days off.
“This has been a real (test), with the injuries and the suspensions and just everything that has gone on with us in the second half that these guys need a real break, and it’s nice to head into the break with the win.”
Evan Vierling, with two goals and an assist, and Declan McDonnell, with a goal and two assists, led the way for the Colts who were looking to gain some momentum heading into the playoffs.
Tyson Foerster and Nathan Allensen, with a goal and assist each, and Hunter Haight also scored for Barrie in the win.
Pano Fimis, Dylan Roobroeck and Danil Gushchin scored for Niagara (22-42-3-1), which finished dead last in the OHL standings.
Jacob Frasca was one of those regulars who dealt with a lengthy injury. A concussion resulted in him missing the majority of the second half and Saturday’s game marked his first game back.
The adversity his teammates faced from a crazy schedule, he believes, will only help them down the road.
“Obviously all the guys on our team want to play in the NHL someday, so to be able to experience that at the NHL level playing back-to-back nights, three-in-three, every other night, three or four-game weeks, it’s a battle, it’s a grind,” said the 19-year-old, who got into just four games since Jan. 20.
“Sixty-eight games is complete now and it was a fairly good regular season, but it’s finished now and we’ll be ready in Mississauga on Friday.”
Frasca, who was cleared earlier this week to return, said he felt good.
“Obviously there’s an adjustment,” he said. “First period, I felt a little rusty. Second was in between and third I felt back to normal. I’m happy that I got that last game in before playoffs next week. I’m so happy to get the win, too.
“Just to be with the guys in the locker room after, I haven’t had that experience in a while and you miss it and you miss it a lot. Being able to come back and win and being with the boys is a great feeling and we’re going to carry this into the playoffs.”
With all his club has been through, Williamson has given his players both Sunday and Monday off. While a couple of the injured players will take to the ice on Monday morning, the head coach wanted his players to get a break before what they hope is a lengthy playoff run.
“That gives us plenty of time, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, to get ready for a Friday game,” said Williamson. “That’s what we want. Get with your families, have Easter and just get totally refreshed and come back hungry on Tuesday to be the hockey team that hopefully we can be.”
The playoffs offer a fresh start and a reset that normally puts everyone on even ground, but the Colts are still dealing with several injuries, including to star goalie Mack Guzda and captain Brandt Clarke.
For Williamson, a lot depends on the return of Clarke and Guzda to see what kind of level they can get to.
“I thought Frasca gave us a great effort tonight for a guy that has been out so long,” he said. “He wanted badly to get a game under his belt, but we’re talking about playoff hockey and these guys got to get up to that.
“As much as Tyson (Foerster) has been really good for us, this is a guy that hasn’t played much hockey in a year-and-a-half. To expect him to just put this team on his back and just carry us, it doesn’t work that way. He’s still getting better each game, but it’s going to be a big chore.”
On top of all that, they’re dealing with a talented Steelheads team led by the likes of Innisfil native James Hardie, Chicago Blackhawks blueline prospect Ethan Del Mastro and 76-point centre Luca DelBelBelluz.
“Mississauga is a heck of a hockey team and we look forward to the challenge,” said Williamson. “It’s a four/five matchup, so it’s two pretty evenly matched teams. It’s going to be the little things that make the difference.”
While the team stumbled down the stretch, Frasca knows they’re a better team than what they’ve showed over these last five weeks.
“When we have all our pieces in the lineup, we know what we can do and know what we’re capable of with Guzda in net and just with our forward depth and defencemen depth and our amazing coaching,” he said. “We can do some damage in the playoffs. We can surprise teams and maybe even surprise ourselves with what we can do and that’s what we’re going to do.”
As for the return of Clarke, Guzda, Oliver Smith and Ryan Del Monte, that likely won’t be known until late next week.
“We’re just going to cross our fingers and hope guys can get better daily and that they’ll be ready to go on Friday,” said Williamson.
ICE CHIPS: Haight’s 22nd goal of the season deserves to be in any kind of talk for goal of the year. The rookie deked around two Niagara defenders before roofing the highlight-reel goal upstairs over Niagara goalie Joseph Costanzo. . . Barrie scored four times in the third to snap a 2-2 tie and outshot Niagara 40-26 in the game. . . Sniper Ethan Cardwell cooled off down the stretch, failing to record a point in four of his last five games. . . Game 2 of the first-round series goes Sunday afternoon in Mississauga, before the series returns to Barrie for Games 3 and 4 on Monday, Apr. 25 and Wednesday, Apr. 28.
Feature image via Terry Wilson/OHL Images