The Guelph Storm’s mini-slump at the end of the regular season guaranteed them a series against the one team most hockey experts agreed had the potential to be the best team in the Western Conference. The Plymouth Whalers have size, speed and veteran leadership like no other team.
“Most teams in the Western Conference saw Plymouth as the number one team they didn’t want to play in the first round” admitted Barr. “But we’ve got them so we’ll have to deal with that.”
With that said, Guelph was seen as the one “sleeper” team that others feared most to meet in the first round. The Storm was one of the best defensive teams in the league and featured arguably the best goaltender in Thomas McCollum. So what you have are two teams very respectful of each other.
Plymouth is the favourite, make no mistake about that. Simply from an experience factor, it isn’t even close. The Whalers have ten 19-year-olds in their line-up, Guelph has two. The Whalers powerplay was 8th overall in efficiency at 20.8%; Guelph’s 15th (17.5%). The Storm has been tremendous killing penalties this year sitting third overall at 84.1%; Plymouth was first at 87.9%. And oh did I mention that the Whalers finished 25 points ahead of the Storm?
“They have a very experienced club and that is always helpful, especially in the playoffs” said Storm coach and general manager Dave Barr as he prepared for a week of practices before Saturday’s first game in Plymouth. “They’re a very strong team depth wise and their physicality can be intimidating for some clubs.”
There is little doubt that the Whalers number one objective will be to pound Guelph’s defense corps every time they go back for the puck. If you start to wear down Drew Doughty, Ryan Parent, Ryan Pottruff, Michael Caruso and Corey Syvret half the battle has already been won. For it is Guelph’s back end that starts every foray up ice and diffuses a number of opposition attacks.
“We’re not going to change what has worked for us all season to address that” said Barr. In other words, you have to trust your players to be able to get the job done once the pressure barometer rises.
The Storm won their final game of the regular season after losing four home games in a row before that. The poor overall finish doesn’t bother Barr.
“I am very encouraged the way we finished in Owen Sound” said the coach. “We played a very emotional game with players up on the bench noticing all the little things we were doing right as a team. We had lost that emotional part of our game recently. We stopped playing with the edge that had made us successful. Had we lost that game (in Owen Sound) I might have been a little more worried.”
With a young team the mental approach will be more important than the physical strategy, especially against such an experienced opponent. The key will be getting all these young players focusing on the next step up the mountain, not the mountain itself.
“If I were to ask the players for example, “your entire season is resting on this next two minute penalty kill. Do you think you can kill it off?” The answer would be yes. So if we can just get them focused on their next shift and then the one after that, I think this becomes a doable task.”
Doable but highly unlikely. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks Guelph will win this series despite their excellent defensive play. The Storm does catch a break in that Whaler forward James Neal will miss the series recovering from knee surgery.
From the Land of Oz?..Forward Tim Priamo is questionable for the series opener after re-spraining the ankle that kept him out for six weeks?.G Thomas McCollum has been given the early part of the week off to recuperate mentally and physically?.Barr benched players Jamie Arniel, Drew Doughty and Matt Kennedy early in their loss to Windsor last Friday. When asked why, he offered only a “no comment” but did say it had nothing to do with a curfew violation?The line of Rafael Rotter, Luke Pither and Anthony Nigro was on fire in Owen Sound. Pither had four goals, Rotter had a goal and four assists while Nigro contributed two assists. Expect them to start the Plymouth series together.