By Paul Osborne, Guelph Mercury Tribune
The Guelph Storm kick off their 28th season Thursday in Windsor before coming back to the Sleeman Centre for their home opener Friday against the Sudbury Wolves.
After two years of missing the playoffs and then a quick first round exit last season, the Storm should be considered as a legitimate candidate to make the conference final at a minimum.
“Absolutely I expect to better,” said coach and GM George Burnett. “We were one of the most improved teams in the league last year in regards to points and we now have 10 guys that have experience at NHL camps and that experience will help our leadership. We recognize there is a lot of work to be done to find out how good we can be.”
One area of improvement seems to be in goal. Anthony Popovich will again be the number one guy but back-up Nico Daws has dazzled during the exhibition season allowing just one goal in three appearances, including a tremendous 45 save performance Saturday night in Guelph’s 4-1 win over Hamilton. The Bulldogs outshot the Storm 46-16 overall and 19-1 in the first period but Daws stood tall.
“He is playing with much more confidence,” said Burnett of his 6’5”, 223lb netminder. “He’s out, he’s up, and he’s big. When you look at the net with some goalies you see a lot of open space, but you don’t see a lot of net with him.”
Popovich looked tired at points last season (playing 60 of the 68 regular season games) so the emergence of Daws should allow Burnett to keep his number one well rested.
“The best scenario would be that (Daws) performs well enough to really push Poppy for playing time,” said the coach. “If we are to have great success, we need to have two goaltenders that the team has confidence in.”
The Storm, with their new logo, showed be a much more experienced club this time around. The question is whether the coaching staff can get them playing unselfish, team-first hockey.
“We need to be a team that plays with more consistency, scores more goals, and cares more about winning than individual accomplishments,” said Burnett. “My expectation is that everyone wants to win. When things don’t go well it is easy to fragment the team and look after yourself, but through team success we will all benefit no matter whether you are looking to be drafted, hoping for a first contract, or a rookie.”
Burnett admits that convincing the players to play for the name on front of the jersey and not the back has become more difficult over time.
“With the different make-up of kids today and all the access to information and (outside influences) it can be a challenge. But there are countless examples that show players having even greater success if they put the team first and have a deep run into the playoffs.”
From the Land of Oz … For what it’s worth, the Storm went 3-1 in exhibition play … Another player who had a good training camp for the Storm was Tag Bertuzzi, collecting three goals and three assists. “Tag has shown some terrific progress,” said Burnett. “He is stronger, more involved, he’s won puck battles and put himself in a position to score.” … The Storm is unsure of who will be back for NHL camps in time for Thursday night. As of Sunday seven players were still away: Isaac Ratcliffe, Nate Schnarr, Ryan Merkley, Dmitri Samorukov, Liam Hawel, Alexey Toropchenko and Popovich.