It was going to be a tough task for the North Bay Battalion. From the onset, they were the clear underdogs going up against the Central Division Champions, Niagara IceDogs, in the first-round series between two division rivals.
The IceDogs had scored 326 goals during the regular season, the most in the league while the Troops had scored 281, 13th in the league. The IceDogs had taken the most shots at 2,578, while the Battalion had given up 2,563, second most in the league. The IceDogs have nine players drafted by NHL clubs, the Battalion have none.
That offensive depth made the difference for the IceDogs who finished off the series with a 4-0 win on Friday night in St. Catharines at a rocking Meridian Centre and in front of a national TV audience on Rogers Sportsnet 360.
The league’s leading scorer Jason Robertson got Niagara on the board with just his second goal of the series, at 3:52 on the power play.
The IceDogs pounded Christian Propp with 57 shots and, as he had done all series, the Battalion netminder gave his team a chance to win by letting just four goals get past him. Propp never faced less than 45 shots in the five-game series and Battalion Assistant Coach Adam Dennis gave tremendous kudos to his player, whom without the Battalion may not have made it to the fifth game. Dennis says “I thought our goalie was exceptional, unfortunately, we just came up short.”
For the series, Propp faced 252 shots and made 234 saves. That is an unprecedented amount of rubber to stop in just five games.
Akil Thomas (2) made it 2-0 when he scored at 11:52 on the power play in the second period.
North Bay surmounted a desperate attack in the third and looked like they were on the cust of breaking through Niagara goaltender Stephen Dhillon (who would total three shutouts during the series) but a turnover at the line sprung the IceDogs free on an odd-man rush into the zone and the trailing player Jacob Paquette (1) blasted a shot from the high slot to put the home side up 3-0 at 8:37. Jack Studnicka finished the scoring with his fourth of the series at 13:25.
It finishes a season for the Battalion that included a high point of 11 straight games with a point. It saw them go from ninth place in the east to four points out of fourth place. They would not get any higher in the standings and finished as the number seven seed in the Eastern Conference.
It marks the end of a tremendous four-year career for Justin Brazeau. The New Liskeard native drafted in the 13th round of the OHL draft would go on to become the most prolific goal scorer the franchise has produced since moving to North Bay.
He finishes with the most career goals scored in a North Bay Battalion uniform with 128, the highest career point totals with 238, second in assists with 110 and this season he finished with the most goals of any OHL player and the most goals scored in a single season for the Battalion franchise with 61. His 113 points is also a single-season franchise high.
Reflecting on his career after the game, Brazeau says “I’ll never forget my first goal, I still remember the play and how it happened and just to score one goal in the OHL is amazing and it was a privilege to play my whole career with one team.”
Dennis spoke about the captain and what he has meant to the team this season,
“I think we’re all pretty fortunate to see what Justin Brazeau did in North Bay this year," said Dennis.
"I don’t know if you’re going to see 60 goals again, it’s pretty special. I think people need to understand how important that was.”
Two other players saw their OHL career come to an end with the game five loss; Luke Burghardt and Theo Calvas.
Burghardt joined the Battalion in an off-season trade before the start of the 2017 season. He produced 28 goals and 71 points last season, forming a dynamic top line alongside Brazeau and Matthew Struthers. At one point Burghardt didn’t even think he would get to play one final OHL season. He was told shortly after the end of last year that he had an injury that would force him to retire from hockey.
After Friday’s game Burghardt said, “it was a pretty weird year for me, went from never playing again to playing, and I was happy to come back. Hockey is everything to me. It sucks losing this way but it was a great group of guys to go out with for sure.”
Dennis says, “What a roller coaster of a season for him. Obviously, it’s not easy to start how he did and come back out of retirement but, he’s been a good player for us.”
Calvas joined the Battalion earlier on in the season. The Battalion had a need for some experience on the back end and Calvas, who had started the year as one of four overage players with the Sarnia Sting says he is very appreciative of the Battalion organization for picking him up and giving him an opportunity to play full time in his last year.
“I get the call that I’m traded to North Bay and I know that right away that I’m going to have to step up and fill a leadership role," Calvas reflected.
"I think everyone wants to fill those shoes. I gave it my all here in the playoffs, I left it all out there. It’s unfortunate the season is coming up short but Niagara is a really strong team and you have to give credit where credit is due.”
“We’re thankful that he came in as he did and he played some big minutes for us and took on a really big role. We thank all three of those guys for their service," said Dennis.