Published March 30, 2023

Barrie clear favourite in opening round against defending OHL champion Bulldogs

They split the season-series
Barrie clear favourite in opening round against defending OHL champion Bulldogs

When the going is good, you don't want it to end.

The Barrie Colts are riding high after posting one of the OHL's best records since December, and when you're having fun the whole idea is to keep it going.

"We've been playing consistent hockey, and we want to keep playing," said Colts head coach Marty Williamson ahead of their first-round playoff series opener against the Hamilton Bulldogs, Thursday night, at Sadlon Arena. "Everything and mistakes get a little bit bigger, and this is the test that you want. You have to beat a team four out of seven, it's a lot different than you beat them one night and move on to a different team.

"Now we face the same team night to night, and that's always the biggest test."

Only four teams in the OHL finished with a better record this season than the Colts, who posted an impressive 42-17-6-3 record to finish second in the Central Division and third overall in the Eastern Conference standings.

While they enter the best-of-seven series against a rebuilding Hamilton team as the clear favourite, the Colts only have to look back at their 7-5 loss in Barrie the last time the two teams met on March 2 to know they'll be in for a stern test.

The Bulldogs also still have players remaining from last year's OHL championship team that fell just short of a Memorial Cup title, losing to the St. John Seadogs in the final.

"They still got guys there with a championship pedigree that are part of the team and the coaching staff," said Williamson, whose club split their four games against Hamilton this season. "They're a hard team to play. I personally think if there's a round-robin between them, Sudbury and Mississauga, they would win and be the best team.

"I think it's a good test. They play the game the right way, and they'll be a good test moving on, if we can get by them then it'll make us better."

Barrie, led by the dynamic three of captain Brandt Clarke, Evan Vierling and Ethan Cardwell, heads into the series armed with one of the league's top offences. Only five teams find the back of the net more.

And all three enter the series on long scoring streaks. Vierling (13-24-37) and Clarke (13-22-35) on 16-game runs, while Cardwell (12-14-26) was not far behind at 13.

Clarke, despite playing in just 31 games, finished the year with a stunning 23 goals and 38 assists for 61 points while setting franchise records as the all-time scoring leader among blue liners, and goals by a defenceman in a single season.

The LA Kings prospect was also the OHL Player and Defenceman of the Month for March after finishing with 11 goals and 11 assists in just nine games, along with a plus/minus rating of plus 16.

"It doesn't mean a whole lot if I tail off in the playoffs," said Clarke earlier this season of his hot run. "I want to take it to a whole new level (at playoff time). I'm excited for that challenge and the whole team is excited for that challenge as well."

While the Sudbury Wolves, a potential first-round opponent, went after Clarke in an effort to get under his skin and get him off the ice, Williamson doesn't expect the same tactic from Hamilton.

"That is one area of the power play that is important if a (team) wants to take dumb penalties," he said of taking advantage of the resulting power plays. "We might have seen this with another team in our league, but I don't think we're going to see it as much with these guys. We play a pretty disciplined team.

"One thing about Hamilton is they just don't give away games. They don't shoot themselves in the foot too much. I think they're going to play hard, but any star in the playoffs needs to expect that.

Vierling and Cardwell are almost certain to draw as much attention from their opponents as Clarke. Vierling finished fifth overall in league scoring with 35 goals and 95 points, while his overage linemate had a career-high 43 goals and 90 points.

Expect Hamilton's Artem Grushnikov to be out there against Barrie's top line.

"It's not different with Evan and Cardwell," said Williamson. "I think there'll be extra shots legally, but it's the same with us. If we can get a lick on (Sanhil) Panwar or Nick Lardis and it's not going to cost us two minutes then that's a good strategy."

The two former Peterborough Petes are without a doubt the straw that stirs the drink on offence for Hamilton. Picked up at the OHL Trade deadline in mid-January, the two forwards have been among the top scorers in the league since arriving.

The overage Panwar had 21 goals and 52 points in just 34 games with the Bulldogs, while Lardis, a top prospect for this year's NHL Draft, finished with 25 goals and 46 points in 33 games

They have been flat-out dominate since arriving in the Steel City.

"They sure were," said Williamson. "They remind me very much of Vierling and Cardwell. They're two guys that they count on heavily. They supply 60 per cent of the offence and we definitely have to be aware when they're on the ice. "The strength of our team is our blueline and our goaltending, so we hope to keep them in check."

With a close eye on the top guns on both teams, that means depth scoring will be vital.

"A lot of it comes to that next layer, with (Beau) Jelsma and (Declan) MacDonnell and that group with Cole Beaudoin. We need contributions from all those guys," said the Colts head coach. "

"That's what made us successful this year, and that's what's going to continue to make us successful in the playoffs if we want to go far."

As will be Barrie's ability to play the tighter, more responsible brand of hockey that helped them turn around their season in late November.

"There's a stat that pretty much tells our team in a nutshell and that's with turnovers," said Williamson. "I think we were up in the 40s when we lost that game (to Hamilton) 7-5. If we can keep it (turnovers) in the teens, that's a normal hockey game, we seem to do very well in those games.

"We get careless and start turning pucks over, I don't care who you're playing they're going to make you pay at some point."

The Colts will turn to Anson Thornton in goal as they have done all season, said Williamson. The goaltender proved he could handle the starter's role finishing the season third in the league in both save percentage (.903) and most wins (29).

"Anson is starting Game 1 and he's had a fantastic year for us, and obviously we need to play well in front of him," he said. "It's always a marriage with your goaltender. You need to help him as a team, and then you also need those two or three big saves in a game and Anson has done a really good job for us in that way."

While the Colts appear to have a heavy edge in specialty units, Williamson doesn't believe they will factor too much in the series.

Barrie's power play was fourth overall (25.3 per cent), while the penalty kill was even better at third overall (81.6 per cent).

Both of Hamilton's specialty teams were in the lower half of the league with the power play 13th (20.7 per cent) and the penalty kill 12th (77.3 per cent).

Williamson points to a unique stat that says success on specialty teams during the regular season doesn't always translate over to the playoffs.

"You really have to win the five-on-five hockey and everything else after that is a real bonus," he said. "Obviously your penalty kill is important and needs to be good there, but power plays almost always tend to be not as successful and it's just because when you really key in on power plays you're able to do a better job. When you're in the regular season, you're not keying in on certain guys."

Williamson said during the regular season they weren't all that keyed into Panwar and Lardis. That won't be the case in the playoffs.

"All of a sudden now, we're focused 100 per cent on certain things," he said. "I do think they're important, because if you get the opportunity you should take advantage. But the other thing is a lot less penalties are called in the playoffs usually, so I think the real importance for us is our five-on-five. It has got to be strong."

Game time tonight is 7:30 p.m.

ICE CHIPS: The two teams return to Sadlon Arena Saturday night for Game 2, before heading to Hamilton on Sunday night for Game 3. . . Williamson said decisions on dressing Tyler Savard (head), Cooper Matthews and Connor Punnett, who left last Thursday's game against Sudbury in the second period, will be made at game time. . . A five-game losing streak to end the season dropped the Bulldogs from going for home-ice advantage in the opening round to sixth place in the conference and a match with Barrie.

 banner image: Terry Wilson/OHL Images

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