by Eric Balnar, Guelphstorm.com
It may be the start of a new year, but there will still be a championship atmosphere in the Sleeman Centre when the Guelph Storm drop the puck on the 2014/2015 season. (Note: Tickets still available by clicking here).
On Friday evening at 7:30 PM, the Storm begin their OHL Championship defense with a celebration with their home fans vs. the Belleville Bulls.
Fans will be treated to a historic pre-game ceremony where four championship banners – for the regular season, Midwest Division, Western Conference and OHL – will be raised to hang above the Sleeman Centre.
Even though the Storm lost some key veteran players from last year’s squad, the team still holds high expectations for themselves.
“We lost some good players but we still have a pretty good team. Last season everybody liked winning and we still want to be the best team,” defenseman Phil Baltisberger told Guelphstorm.com in a pre-season interview.
“It’s going to be tough but we will look to get better every day.”
THE OPPONENT: Belleville Bulls
The Bulls have an eye on returning to the postseason after missing the playoffs by a single point in 2014. That will mean the team has to improve on a 53-point season.
Friday will be the OHL debut of 2014 fourth overall draft pick Brandon Saigeon. The 16-year-old rookie will hopefully give an offense that ranked 15th in scoring last year a boost.
The Storm have to be wary of who stands in net for the Bulls. Last season, Bulls net minder Charlie Graham stopped 67 pucks en route to a 6-5 upset victory of the Storm.
On defense the Bulls are led by NHL draft-eligible 17-year-old Justin Lemcke. He was a reliable force for the Bulls last season. Belleville will look for further improvement from their youngster.
Also of note, Bulls’ head coach and general manager George Burnett makes a return to Guelph. Burnett was the head coach of the Storm for the 1997-1998 season, leading Guelph to an OHL Championship and a spot in the Memorial Cup finals.
STORM WATCH: Three things to look out for on the Guelph Storm
#1 NEW LEADERS
It is a new-look Storm this year with players like Matt Finn, Kerby Rychel, Brock McGinn, Scott Kosmachuck and Nick Ebert moving on to the professional ranks. Couple that with returning vets Justin Auger, Robby Fabbri, Zac Leslie and Jason Dickinson still at NHL training camps and the Guelph Storm are looking for new players to step up into a leadership role.
Doesn’t mean they don’t have them. On defense, Ben Harpur and Phil Baltisberger will look to use their memorial experience to show the young kids how it’s done.
“We’re returning with another year under our belt,” Ben Harpur told Guelphstorm.com in a pre-season interview. “We’ve got to step up and lead the young defense we have this year.”
#2 SWISS SENSATIONS
Two of the players expected to step up and take a leadership role on the team are two players from Switzerland – Phil Baltisberger and Pius Suter.
Both were important role players in Guelph’s championship season last year. This season they could get top-line minutes.
Suter made a name for himself as a pesky penalty killer last season while Baltisberger is the big man on the blue line.
#3 ROOKIES READY TO SHINE
Matthew Hotchkiss, Aleks Rapp, James McEwan, Jesse Hilton, Kyle Rhodes, Noah Carroll and Austin Hall – these are the names of the seven rookies who made the opening day roster. Get used to them, Storm fans, these kids have talent and could make an impact from the first puck drop.