The 2021-22 edition of the Ottawa 67’s were the OHL’s only team not to crack 200 goals this season with a league-low 199 and that’s a first in franchise history since the sad-sack first edition of 67’s way back in 1967-68 managed just 105.
So that can’t be a good sign when goals are typically harder to come by in the playoffs.
The North Bay Battalion, ranked eighth in the CHL, shut the 67’s offense down to top the 67’s 4-1 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal opener before a crowd of 2,327 at the North Bay Memorial Gardens Thursday night.
The Battalion scored a disputed game-winner when Mitchell Russell crashed the 67’s net and 67’s goaltender Max Donoso 5:58 into the third period and North Bay added insurance on a goal by Owen Van Steensel at 9:33.
Paul Christopoulos then added an empty-netter with 1:14 remaining to cap the 67’s first post-season game since May 12, 2019, a stretch of 1,073 days, back to when the 67’s were rolling with a 14-4 playoff record and big expectations before COVID shut things down.
The 67’s will stay in North Bay and play Game 2 on Saturday night before the series shifts to The Arena at TD Place for games Three and Four Monday and Wednesday nights.
Dunvegan’s Joe Vrbetic, a Montreal Canadiens draft, was tough to beat in the Battalion net in his first post-season appearance since 2018-19 with the Powassan Voodoos in the Northern Ontario junior loop.
He outdueled the rookie Donoso, who was equally outstanding though for most of the night, as the 28-point discrepancy between the two teams wasn’t apparent as the 67’s matched the heavily-favoured Battalion stride for stride.
“It’s what you play for all year and what makes it even more exciting is that a lot of these guys have not played any kind of playoff game in three years,” said 67’s head coach Dave Cameron, before the teams hit the ice. “The pandemic basically dimmed the playoff experience but we’ve been in a playoff hunt for a month now.
“Any time you’re a lower seed you’re going to face a big challenge and we accept that.”
The two teams played six times during the regular season with the 67’s winning the series 3-2-1-0 despite being outscored 16-14 with three of the games behind decided by a goal.
After not facing each other since Feb. 20, the teams took a while to get re-acquainted.
Once they got the playoff jitters out of their system, the two clubs showed signs of what might be a very entertaining series, and certainly more even that most predicted.
The 67’s even out-chanced the Battalion for scoring chances in a wide open first 20 minutes with 67’s rookie Chris Barlas firing a shot off the post and Tyler Boucher, Jack Beck and Will Gerrior all having excellent chances for the first goal of the series. The 67’s held an 11-7 advantage in shots on goal after 20.
The rookie Donoso was outstanding in, naturally, his first OHL playoff game.
Like he did every night down the stretch, Donoso keeps things simple and gives the 67’s a chance to win.
“A lot of times, who plays is not determined by coaches but by the players themselves,” said Cameron. “(Donoso) is a great story.
“We cut him at training camp and he went to Tier II (Hawkesbury Hawks) and worked his way back.”
A Zamboni breakdown extended the first intermission but hit hardly slowed the teams in the second as North Bay seemed to find their form.
A wide margin in the play led to the first goal of the series when North Bay’s Russell, a 47-goal scorer in the regular season, beat Donoso 11:05 into the period, on the power-play with Boucher off for a questionable roughing call.
That stood until Beck scored short-handed 3:30 into the third before the Battalion put things away.
So the 67’s will try Saturday to get what they traveled north for, that being a road split.
“Everybody is super-excited,” said veteran Cam Tolnai, one of three 67’s with playoff experience, albeit limited to four games in 2018-19. “As a 7th (seed) versus and two seed, there are going to be ups and downs.
“We just can’t panic is we give up a bad goal. We have to realize we don’t have to get it right back. We just have to stick to our system and the other key is to win the special teams battle.”