The Belleville Bulls are happy that they won the battle and now hope that it will help them win the war.
The Bulls and Battalion were in a neck-and-neck race for first place through the final weeks of the regular season. The Bulls finished two points ahead when the season ended and that gives them home ice advantage when the two teams meet in the Rogers OHL Eastern Conference finals for the Bobby Orr Trophy starting on Wednesday in Belleville.
“It’s been quite a battle to try to stay ahead of a very strong Brampton club down the stretch,” said Bulls’ GM and Coach George Burnett. “It’s been a tremendous year here in Belleville. We were a little uncertain about how things would go after a Memorial Cup visit last year but with the leadership of players like Eric (Tangradi), P.K. Subban and the like, we’ve put together a pretty solid season. We’re anxious to get started and it should be a lot of fun.”
The Battalion finished the season with 96 points, their best regular season finish since joining the OHL in 1998 and have advanced to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
“We’ve had probably the best season in our 11 year existence,” said Battalion GM and Coach Stan Butler. “Obviously, like Belleville we’ve had two tough rounds of playoffs, and we’re really excited about getting the opportunity to play a team of Belleville’s abilities. We’re just looking forward to get going tomorrow night and go from there.”
The Bulls are making their third straight appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. They lost to the Sudbury Wolves in 2007 and beat the Oshawa Generals last year. They lost a dramatic seven game series against the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL Championship Series and were the OHL representative in the MasterCard Memorial Cup last May in Kitchener.
Burnett believes that the Bulls’ extensive playoff experience helped them get through the first two rounds after a rough start against the Sudbury Wolves and a home ice loss to the Niagara IceDogs.
“I think where you can call upon it is when things aren’t as good as you’d like it to be,” Burnett said. “When you need to be patient and persevere a little bit to get through some rough patches and not panic. We’ve got a number of guys that have had this experience for the third year now and I think it has helped us in the first two rounds when we were not as strong as we would have liked to start either series but finished strongly and really showed some poise and veteran presence as the series developed.”
Among the Brampton players, only Anthony Peluso has been this far in the playoffs. He helped the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds advance to the semi-finals against the Rangers last spring. Despite that lack of experience, Battalion captain Cody Hodgson said that playing in the World Under-18 and World Junior Championships has helped him as well as star forwards Evgeny Grachev and Matt Duchene and all-star netminder Thomas McCollum prepare for an extended playoff run.
“I just try to get across to the guys that even though we haven’t been in this situation before, it’s still the same game and hockey is still a basic game,” Hodgson said. “We know that Belleville has a great team and are the opponent. We can still use the way that we play to our advantage.”
Hodgson said that his team is looking forward to the challenge.
“It should be a great playoff matchup against Belleville,” Hodgson said. “We know they have a lot of top end players and it should be a battle.”
Rogers OHL Eastern Conference Championship for the Wayne Gretzky Trophy: Belleville Bulls (1) vs. Brampton Battalion (2)
Head to Head: The teams split the season series with two wins each. They both won on home ice and then both won on the road, including a 4-1 win for the Battalion in the series finale on February 28 in Belleville. The Bulls were 47-17-2-2 for 98 points during the regular season and won their second straight Eastern Conference regular season season title. The Battalion were 47-19-1-1 and finished two points behind the Bulls for second place in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls defeated the Sudbury Wolves in six games in the opening round and then eliminated the Niagara IceDogs in five games to make their third straight appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. The Battalion started the playoffs with a sweep of the Peterborough Petes and then defeated the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors in six games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Top Scorers: Bulls’ captain Eric Tangradi (8-12-20) was one of the league’s top scorers in the regular season and has continued to hold a hot hand in the playoffs. Veteran Luke Pither (5-12-17) has also been a standout for the Bulls and veteran Bryan Cameron (6-6-12) has 10 of his points in the past six games. The Battalion have been led all season of the terrific trio of Cody Hodgson (4-14-18), Evgeny Grachev (7-8-15) and Matt Duchene (7-7-14) who continue to dominate in the post-season.
In the Nets: Mike Murphy (8-3, 2.09 GAA, .929 Sv.%) has been the OHL’s top goalie for the past two seasons and frustrates the opposition with highlight-reel saves. The Battalion brought in Thomas McCollum (8-2, 2.37 GAA, .909 Sv.%) to help get them over the second round hump and he’s been a stable presence in net.
Special Teams: The Bulls struggled on the powerplay early in the playoffs but have rebounded for a 17.0 per cent rating and are seventh with an 80.8 per cent penalty killing rate. The Battalion are fifth in the playoffs with a 24.1 per cent powerplay efficiency and are third after killing off 85.7 per cent of their powerplay chances against.
Outlook: The Bulls come into the series with a lot of playoff experience after playing in the MasterCard Memorial Cup last year but the Battalion proved in their win against the Majors that there is more to them that the big three up front. Brampton knocked out Belleville in first round of the 2006 playoffs – the only time they have met in the post-season. Neither team has lost a game in the playoffs when they had the lead after the first period.
Game 1 – Wednesday April 15, 7:15 at Belleville
(Nathan also is a writer for Maineiacs Post to Post and the Maine Hockey Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)