Who wants to watch the Toronto Raptors get blown away by the Atlanta Hawks on a Wednesday night? Not me. Instead, I tuned into this East Division match up between the Ottawa 67's and the Belleville Bulls. Unfortunately since this game was delayed by a half hour due to a late arrival by Ottawa (their bus had some mechanical problems), I did have to sit through an opening quarter of the Raps game that saw them concede 33 points. When the game did get played, the 67's continued their red hot play by coming into the Yardmen Arena and stealing this one by a score of 4-3. The victory was Ottawa's 8th in their last 9 games. It's about time this team started climbing the standings in the Eastern Conference.
It was actually a very entertaining game. While Belleville never had the lead in this one, they showed a lot of heart by climbing back to tie the game twice before giving up the game winning goal with 37 seconds to go in regulation. The game saw the match up of two 2010 eligible goaltenders, both imports. Of course I'm talking about Petr Mrazek of Ottawa (and the Czech Republic), and Phil Grubauer of Belleville (and of Germany). Both goalies were excellent in the game and made a lot of quality, point blank saves. In the end, it was Belleville's inability to get the puck out of their end that cost them the game. Turnovers in their own end led to 2 of the 4 Ottawa goals, including the game winner.
Some individual player thoughts:
Tyler Toffoli (2010)
Came into this game red hot, riding a 6 game point streak where he had put up 16 points in that span. But he was surprisingly quiet in this one. He made a couple of nice plays off the rush to generate scoring chances. Had a really good scoring chance himself by sneaking past the Belleville defense and taking a pass in the slot, but couldn't get enough on the one timed shot to beat Grubauer, shooting it right into his chest. On the negative, it seemed like he might be trying to do too much with the puck. In a way, I felt like he played a bit of a selfish game, turning the puck over a few times by trying to make one too many moves or by holding on to it too long. But then again, a player coming in as red hot as Toffoli is going to be playing with a lot of confidence and be looking to try and create. I'm just saying I think he needs to be a bit smarter in doing so. I keep trying to catch Toffoli on a good game, but I've yet to do so. It's obvious he's having them, I just need to see it for myself.
Anthony Nigro (STL)
Whenever I see Nigro with the 67's, I'm always so shocked at how different a player he's become in Ottawa. In Guelph he was a forecheck and cycle machine, a guy who generated his scoring chances by outworking the defense in the offensive zone. In Ottawa, he's become a much different offensive player; one that generates his offense primarily off the rush and on the drive to the net. Not necessarily a bad thing, but just an observation. Nigro had a very solid game tonight. Scored a beauty of a goal in the 2nd period to open the scoring. Took a pass in the slot, lost control of it momentarily on the backhand but managed to spin around and fire it home on the forehand with a top shelf wrister just under the cross bar. Earlier in the game, he created a very nice opportunity to score for Cody Lindsay but using the toe drag on the way to the net to draw the ire of the 67 defenseman, only to pass the puck to a streaking Lindsay who fanned on the shot, allowing Grubauer enough time to get over and make the save. Nigro also had the primary assist on the game winning goal by Lindsay. Thomas Nesbitt stole the puck along the boards, put it to Nigro who then slipped it to Lindsay alone in front of the net for the shot five hole. Was a tic-tac-toe play that showcased some excellent playmaking ability from Nigro. Considering all the different sides he's shown in the OHL, I do wonder which one is the Nigro we'll see at the next level.
Julien Demers (SJ)
Truthfully, I didn't really notice Demers tonight. And I think that's a good thing. A quality defensive defenseman, I think he got caught up with trying to do too much offensively at the beginning of the season and as a result he struggled (injuries played a part too). When Demers is at his best, he's playing the body, quietly effectively defensively and making quick passes in the defensive end. And he did that tonight.
Tyler Cuma (MIN)
First off, obviously the biggest news of the day is his omission from the Canadian WJC tryout camp (TSN has an excellent piece on Cuma's disappoint here). To his credit, and he admits this himself in the TSN article, I think he's been playing a lot better hockey the past month or so (obviously correlated with Ottawa's improvements in recent weeks). Defensively, he was a stud tonight. Nobody from Belleville was able to get past him tonight, and playing on the big ice, that speaks volumes to his skating ability and mobility. He took the body hard too, really rubbing out a Belleville player along the boards (I can't remember who exactly)...although he took a boarding penalty on the play. Nice to see him playing inspired physical defensive hockey though. On the downside...I think he's still struggling with his confidence offensively and with the puck. Looks hesitant to rush the puck up ice and when the puck hits his stick, he's quick to dish it off. Evidence of this was his near costly delay of game penalty in the third period that allowed Kyle DeCoste to tie the game at 3. Before his injury, Cuma was a very capable puck rushing defenseman and a guy who showed flashes of being a very capable two way defenseman. Since, his offensive production has really slipped and I think it's directly related to confidence and timing. I do think it's only a matter of time before he gets it back though. Once he becomes comfortable again defensively and things start becoming a little more automatic, I'm sure we'll see his passes become more crisp. And I'm sure we'll see him take more chances on the rush.
Ryan Martindale (2010)
I thought Martindale played an OK game, probably better than Toffoli was tonight. With Dalton Smith out of the line up (apparent upper body injury, but not serious), these two played a TON tonight; this had to be taxing on them. While he was fairly invisible offensively tonight, the one thing I do really like about Martindale is that he's able to get his shot off in traffic. He does well to use his size to give him a bit of time and space to shoot. I think this bodes really well for his production at the next level, even if his skating needs improvement (which was obvious on the big ice tonight).
Petr Mrazek (2010)
The Czech Import played a heck of a game tonight. With a shutout through the first two periods of this game, he ended up with a 7 period shutout streak. Unfortunately, this was broken in the third when he gave up 3 goals. But this is the third time this season I've been very impressed by Mrazek. He's very athletic, he challenges shooters, he takes away the bottom of the net, and he reacts well to the play. Not sure what else you could ask of a goaltender. Made several point blank saves tonight, all because he was able to cut down the angle by challenging at the top of the blue ice and then held on to the puck and didn't give up a big rebound. The goals that did beat him, he didn't have that much of a chance on, save maybe Kyle DeCoste's first goal where he bit on the pass fake and exposed his five hole on a side of the net opportunity. If anything, I think he needs to commit later to the play, as in the two previous viewings he was scored on in similar fashions by getting him down to the ice on the flop. The 2010 OHL crop of goaltenders is looking like a solid group, however it's also a group without a definitive number 1 candidate. I think Mrazek has the potential to seize that top spot, if he can continue to get playing time. He made 34 of 37 saves for the victory.
Bjorn Krupp (MIN)
Not a good night for Bjorn Krupp. Then again, I don't think I've ever seen him have a good one. Bulls fans, help me out here? He does have good ones right? I will come out and say that Krupp has potential as a stay at home defenseman. He handles forwards on the rush quite well and is hard to get around. He made a very nice defensive play on Cody Lindsay as he tried to get by him and take the puck to the net. Krupp knocked the puck away with his stick first and then knocked Lindsay to the ice shortly after. It's his play with the puck that's just atrocious. He's a complete liability on the ice with the puck on his stick. Two turnovers led to Ottawa goals tonight. And not just that, I'm not sure he hit a single Belleville forward with a crisp pass up ice. The first turnover was on a brutal clearing attempt in the second period. It was knocked down by an Ottawa forward, only to be stolen back again by Kyle DeCoste, only to have him give it away to Joe Carnevale for the goal. But the original turnover that led to the goal was Krupp's. The game winning goal was worse. Krupp tried to carry the puck out from behind his net, lost control, panicked and fired a weak clear off the boards that was intercepted by Thomas Nesbitt, who then fed Nigro who then fed Lindsay to the back of the net. I don't want to sound harsh, but professional hockey players would eat Krupp alive on the forecheck. He makes Wade Belak look like Sidney Crosby. But there is hope, his defensive awareness and ability is solid, he just needs to drastically improve his play with the puck.
Alex Basso (2011)
With such a quality group of 1993 defenseman this year in the OHL, Basso is a guy that gets overlooked. He didn't crack the Under 17 team, but only because the 7 defenseman who did are all outstanding. But Basso is a guy that has impressed me. He can skate, especially with the puck on his stick. And he's got a lot of confidence in his ability to move the puck, he really doesn't hesitate to try and make an offensive play. Defensively, he's learning. Made an error on the first Cody Lindsay goal as he got caught standing still, and Lindsay cut back to the middle of the ice causing Basso to fall and Lindsay to roof it top shelf. But I like his willingness to take the body. In the other times I've seen him this season, he's been eager to throw that open ice hit, especially at the blueline. We'll see how his game progresses as the season goes along.
Shawn Lalonde (CHI)
Had a tremendous game tonight. Was all over the ice creating scoring chances. At the Yardmen arena, he's so effective. That extra space is like gold to him. Very aggressive in bringing the puck up the ice, had several very nice end to end rushes tonight. He made some good pinches too, although because he makes a lot of them he can be prone to getting caught. Scored his goal by joining the rush and picking up a loose puck, only to roof it top shelf as he out waited Petr Mrazek and Tyler Cuma as they went down to block the shot. Made a couple beautiful passes tonight too and creates so well in transition. Defensively, he was mistake free from what I could tell too. Had a couple bad passes in his own zone, but as I said, when you take chances you're bound to make some mistakes. I think he's the perfect defenseman for today's NHL game. We'll see how he does at the Canadian WJC camp. Finished the game with a goal and two assists.
Andy Bathgate (PIT)
I was actually quite excited to see Bathgate tonight. Last time I saw him, he was in quite the slump to the start the season, but he turned it around with an outstanding November (7 goals and 7 assists in 13 games). However, he didn't really do much tonight. Had one nice rush up ice where he made a good pass off to Luke Judson as the side of the net for the open tap in, but Judson fanned on it. Outside of that, I truthfully didn't notice him for the good or the bad.
Kyle DeCoste (TBL)
Averaging a point a game since the trade from Sault Ste. Marie, he trade to Belleville has re-invigorated DeCoste's offensive game. He definitely had an interesting one tonight. It was kind of split into two parts. The first part, which happened in the first two periods. And the second part, which happened in the third period. The first part was ugly...real ugly. Turnover in the defensive zone that led to Joe Carnevale's goal in the second period. Wasn't looking, tried to make a pass across ice and Carnevale picked it off and took it in alone on Grubauer. This turnover happened about 2 minutes before he took a terrible, lazy defensive zone penalty for a hook on Ryan Martindale. Nothing was going his way. In the third period, things changed. He started to become more active on the forecheck and thus was able to make a contribution on the scoresheet by scoring two goals. First one, took a pass from Shawn Lalonde, took it right to the net, faked the pass (getting Mrazek down in the butterfly), and then jammed it under his pads. Second goal was a one time shot off a feed from Adam Payerl to the slot. The thing is, DeCoste needs to remember that at the next level, he's going to have to play that energy, physical, pesky forward role at all times because his offensive skills aren't going to be winning him a job at the NHL level.
Stephen Silas (2010)
I continue to be impressed by Silas. I just think he's a very cool, calm, and collected two way defenseman. The thing I like most is his anticipation of the play and his smarts with and without the puck. Made a couple very nice plays defensively tonight, by simply using his stick. One was off a dump in by Joe Carnevale. Carnevale clearly had Silas beat to the puck, so Silas let him get it first but then chipped it right off his stick and to his defensive partner Alex Basso. While I've seen him play physical in the past, he wasn't tonight. I'm wondering if this could develop into a consistent portion of his game in the future. Offensively, he makes smart, quick passes in transition and he has the ability to rush the puck up ice. Had a nice play to join into the rush as the trailer and put a good shot on net that was stopped by Mrazek. However the shot generated a juicy rebound that sent the 67's back the other way on an odd man rush. However Silas got back to the defensive zone quickly and defused the situation. Quite often with young defenseman, you'll see them get caught up ice in instances like that, but not Silas. I think there is a lot of potential with him.
Alex Aleardi (2010)
Perfect situation for him. Speedy forward meets the big ice. Like the perfect marriage of player to environment. He seems to be getting a lot of playing time in Belleville too. I thought he was excellent tonight. All over the ice on the forecheck and was causing a lot of problems for Ottawa's defense both on the rush and in the zone. While nothing came of his chances, the writing seems to be on the wall for increased offensive production (even if he hasn't shown it yet). I'm not sure he's an NHL draft prospect quite yet, but in the future if his hands can catch up to his skating ability (similar to the way Alex Friesen's have this season in Niagara), he'll be on someone's radar.
Phil Grubauer (2010)
Despite taking the loss, I thought Grubauer played a good game tonight. Got hung out to dry by his defense a few times and ended up giving up goals on the play. Two other shots beat him just below the crossbar, perfectly placed. He made some big saves tonight to keep his team in the game. Like Mrazek, he made some big saves off point blank opportunities in the slot. He challenged the shooter, made the save and managed to give up few rebounds. Like Mrazek, he's also an athletic goaltender who has the ability to make the acrobatic save. Despite the fact that two shots beat him upstairs tonight, I think he's actually got an excellent glove hand which was on display in the game with two very good glove saves off slap shots in close. Grubauer is right in there with the likes of Mrazek, Anderson, Visentin and O'Hagan for that top OHL goaltender for 2010. He made 29 of 33 saves and took the loss.