Went down to the Hershey Centre last night to check out the Dogs and Majors. Once bitter rivals, the bite between these two Central Division teams has left the building. When the Majors first moved to the Hershey Centre and the Dogs left for Niagara, you'd be hard pressed to find a more intense match up. But as one reader pointed out in comments not long ago, the bitterness among these two teams has long since dissipated. With only a handful of players still around from before the switch, the rivalry seems long forgotten.
This game was a real testament to that, for the majority. Definitely not the prettiest game to watch. Lacked any real energy for the first half of the game, especially from the IceDogs. There were some fisticuffs at the end of the game, but that was more to do with a cheap shot by Johnson Andrews than anything else. Possibly a little frustration from what appeared to be a lifeless IceDog team.
Perhaps the Dogs were tired after their longwinded shootout victory over Owen Sound the night before, because only a handful of their players showed any giddy-up at all. The lack of energy from their end really allowed the Majors to dictate the pace of play for the majority of the game. Of note, the IceDogs powerplay is particularly atrocious and almost frustrating to watch. They really miss Alex Pietrangelo and Drew Schiestel on the back end. Not one of the many different powerplay combinations could generate much of anything for the Dogs, including the ol' fashioned five forward powerplay unit (which I'm completely against using). This team is sitting at under 6 percent right now for their powerplay unit, that's by far the lowest in the league. With only 3 powerplay goals all year, the Dogs are close to giving up as many shorthanded markers (2) as they've scored powerplay goals. That right there is the definition of a struggling unit. It's almost as if the Dogs would prefer other teams didn't take penalties against them so that play could remain five on five. The other thing I've noticed as far as the Dogs go is the breaking up of the DeSousa/Friesen/Agozzino line in order to try and spread the wealth offensively. That line was performing so well and really dictating the pace of play. While spreading the wealth and getting production from your other lines is important, so is scoring goals. I'd much prefer the Dogs keeping that line together and pressure the secondary units to step up their game. One line working well together is better than 4 lines working averagely. Plus that aforementioned "mini" forward line really set the pace of games. They tired out opposing defenses and really brought energy to the ice and this is something the Dogs lacked tonight. It'll be interesting to see how the Dogs handle the struggling Sudbury Wolves (losers of 6 in a row) today at home.
As for the Majors, they played a really strong game. Defensively, the effort was tremendous. Chris Carrozzi didn't have to do a whole heck of a lot tonight, as the Dogs were kept to the outside for the majority of the game. I really think this team is one really solid offensive forward away from being a serious OHL contender. Getting Gregg Sutch back in a week or two shoudln't hurt.
Here are some thoughts on individual players...
Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
Tim Billingsley (PHX)
I think Billingsley is really starting to come around again. This is the third time I've seen him this season and he's gotten better each time. I think the background of my disappointment with Billingsley is that I remember how promising he looked in his first two years in the league, as a somewhat hard-nosed two way rearguard. Last year was a huge step backward for him, but he seems to be slowly putting it back together. I think the key for him is keeping things simple with the puck, like he did tonight. He's not a blessed puck mover so as long as he can make smart decisions with the puck and not rush movement up ice, he can limit his turnovers. Last night he actually laid a few nice hits too, which is an element that has been absent in Billingsley's game of recent times. He needs to play that way in order to be successful defensively. I think Dave Cameron has to be happy with Billingsley's progression this year too since he actually received some powerplay time tonight and didn't look out of place either.
Brett Flemming (WSH)
Good to see Brett back on defense after he was up at forward the last time I saw him play. Glad to see that experiment over. He's back paired with Cameron Gaunce on the Majors top defensive unit and I continue to be impressed with his play. His best asset is his mobility which he uses to play both ends of the ice. Made several nice rushes up ice tonight. He also used his speed to make a solid play at the defensive end. Turnover at the blueline led to a breakaway by Andrew Shaw, but Flemming caught up to him and forced him to a somewhat weak backhand attempt. It was good on him to not take a penalty on the play, but to play Shaw clean (although how much damage would an IceDog powerplay do anyway?) Was somewhat disappointed by the fact that he saw little powerplay time though. He finished the game a solid +2.
Casey Cizikas (NYI)
Thought he played a pretty solid game. As always, he was active on the penalty kill and I like the fact that he's starting to show a bit of grit to his game (saw his fight against Matt Clark recently). He's been more consistent this year in playing active and going to the net with and without the puck. He scored on a very nice tip in of William Wallen's point shot. Cizikas finished with a goal and an assist.
Jordan Mayer (2010, but 1991 born)
I'm always impressed by Jordan Mayer. He's definitely one of the elite skating forwards in the OHL. He can turn on the jets and really blow by an opposing defense. I like his fearless attitude too. Not the biggest, but he works hard in the corners and is active near the crease. Corey Bureau's third period goal was all Mayer. He drove hard into the offensive zone, came up with the puck, kept possession and found Bureau at the side of the net for the nice finish. His speed and work ethic really do wonders to confuse opposing teams defenses. As one of the youngest players eligible for the draft last year, here's hoping NHL teams have taken note of his progression this season.
Devante Smith-Pelly (2010)
Even though he was held off the scoresheet, I thought Smith-Pelly was the most impressive Majors forward on the night. Not always a consistent point producer, I don't think it's long before he starts hitting the stat line consistently. I really liked the newly formed Smith-Pelly/Cizikas/Wallen line. The thing I like about Smith-Pelly is that he plays bigger than he actually is. Only average sized, he generates a lot of power in his skating stride and it makes him very hard to contain on the rush. At times I've questioned his offensive ceiling and overall skill set, but I'm starting to believe it's more a matter of confidence with the puck on his stick. He showed a couple highlight reel moves tonight, one as he got past the Dogs defenseman with some nifty puckhandling, but couldn't get a serious scoring chance out of it. I think we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg with Smith-Pelly.
Cameron Gaunce (COL)
Cameron Gaunce was typical Cameron Gaunce tonight. Steady as he goes. Gaunce is almost always a solid two way defender who makes smart decisions with the puck. Sometimes he gets himself in trouble when he tries to do too much, like one turnover he had at the blueline that nearly led to an odd man rush. Not the most blessed stick handler you'll see, he's better when he relies on his on ice vision to make quick plays, rather than trying to play the puck possession game (part of the reason why the Gaunce/Flemming pairing works so well IMO). Gaunce can absolutely wire it from the back end too, scoring on a nice hard point shot in the first period. I also like the added physicality to his game this year. Always a criticism against Gaunce, it appears hes working on becoming more of a physical threat.
Chris Carrozzi (ATL)
Carrozzi was solid when he had to be tonight. Wasn't really tested a whole lot, but when he was he was up to the occasion. Made a nice save by sliding over to hug the post on the Andrew Shaw breakaway attempt. Made a couple second chance saves on goal mouth scrambles by standing his ground. One such occurrence happened because of Carrozzi's poor clear of the puck which led directly to a turnover and a couple scoring chances, but none of Niagara's forwards were able to get the puck over his pads. Carrozzi has always been a really steady goalie who doesn't necessarily wow you, but who won't lose the game for you either. It'll be interesting to see what happens as the season goes on. Whether the Majors keep Carrozzi to continue to split time with J.P. Anderson, or whether they trade him to one of the teams looking for a starting goaltender (ala Windsor). He made 22 saves for the shutout victory.
Alex Friesen (2010 but 1991 born)
Friesen has really taken steps forward this year. He's learned to use his speed to generate offensive opportunities and has a lot more confidence in carrying the puck into the zone. In a way, he's a very similar player to Mississauga's Jordan Mayer. Friesen was one of the few IceDogs who looked like they were actually tying tonight, but he often got swallowed by the Majors defense as he entered the zone. It'll be interesting to see if his steps forward this season earn him NHL draft attention.
Chris DeSousa (2010, but 1990 born)
This year is DeSousa's last chance at being drafted and he's playing like he wants it. I thought he was Niagara's best forward tonight. Not the greatest skater in the world (which can spell trouble for smaller players at the next level), DeSousa uses solid strength and positioning to get by defenders. It almost felt like he was all by himself out there, as he'd do well to get puck possession in the offensive zone, but receive no support from it. I think he's got a real nose for the puck too and has a pretty high level of hockey sense. Once the Alex Pietrangelo situation is cleared up, I'd be surprised if DeSousa wasn't the next IceDog captain (should Petro not return).
Matt Petgrave (2010)
I continue to see a lot of potential in this kid. He's not really putting up points right now, but I think it'll be really interesting to see what he does at the end of the year. An OHL rookie who played AAA last year, Petgrave is still going through some growing pains. He still turns the puck over in the offensive zone by making poor decisions. He still takes himself out of position going for the big hit. But, you can see the potential in him. The way he skates the puck up ice. The way he reads plays offensively. I'd love to see him get more playing time on the powerplay. It's pretty obvious that the PP isn't working as it is, so why not give Petgrave a chance on the first unit, so that he can develop his skills and get some experience.
Petteri Simila (MTL)
I thought Simila was outstanding tonight. The Dogs have been really blessed to get the quality of goaltending they have been getting so far this season. If not for Simila, this game could have been 6 or 7 nothing. You'd be blind to not notice his size on the ice, at 6'6 he's a behemoth goaltender. But I like the way he challenges shooters and makes himself even bigger. Often times you'll see big goaltenders stay deep in their net, but I like to see them stay aggressive and come right out to the top of the blue ice. He takes away the bottom of the net really well and controls the rebounds from his pads, directing them to the corner. Like some big goaltenders, I do think he needs to work on his lateral mobility. On two of the goals tonight he got beat going side to side (the Lopes SH goal, and the Corey Bureau goal). A skating and strength coach should help him improve his overall agility. He made 38 of 42 saves and took the loss.
Anyone else see the game?