The OHL is back folks. While I haven't yet had a chance to get to a game live, I did catch the Sting versus the Knights on the OHL Action Pack.
It was a pretty exciting game, with a pace that increased as the game went along. Things started rather slowly with a somewhat timid first period, but the second period saw 6 goals scored. In the second half of the period especially, the action was fast and furious. The game ended up going to overtime where Seth Griffith capitalized on a Brett Ritchie turnover to head up ice on a two on one with Jared Knight, who finished off a beautiful cross ice feed for the game winner. If you count the shootout winner last night, it's Knight's second game winner in a row.
The Knights as a whole looked pretty good. Some sloppy defensive play at times, but the team has a nice mixture of speed and tenacity. One thing that struck me as somewhat odd was Dale Hunter's consistent use of five forwards on the powerplay (with Colin Martin, Michael MacDonald, and Jared Knight seeing time on the point). As the game went along, Scott Harrington began to see more and more time, but the five forward unit was used a fair amount. Even after Jarred Tinordi comes, you have to wonder if Dale Hunter has little faith in his defense's ability to move the puck and quarterback the powerplay.
The Sting are going to be an exciting team this season. Think of them like the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL right now. A ton of exhilarating young talent up front and a high tempo offense, but perhaps a team too green to be a consistent standings threat. Sarnia did look real good against a tough London team (a day after shutting out Windsor), but defensively they struggled tonight. A lot of turnovers and lazy penalties that led to strong scoring chances for London. On the plus side, John Cullen looked great in net and if he can continue to be a rock back there, the Sting might win more games than they lose.
#9 - Brandon Francisco (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Playing on Sarnia's top line with Brett Ritchie and Alex Galchenyuk (Brandon Alderson also shuffled in at times), Francisco was the least visible of the three IMO. Showed flashes of being able to dart in and out of traffic, but wasn't able to find a lot of room. However, he did score a goal, capitalizing on a mistake by Scott Harrington at the blueline.
#10 - Nail Yakupov (NHL Draft Eligible in 2012)
Everything Yakupov does is done at high speed. I can't wait to see this guy live at some point this year to better appreciate how fast he plays the game. At this point, he could stand to use his teammates a little better as he seems to get tunnel vision in the center of the ice, but his puckhandling skills are fantastic. He turns and pivots on a dime and takes the puck with him. He seems to make it look really effortless. He scored a really nice goal in the second period, as he beat Michael D'Orazio and Jared Knight to the net on the rush and finished off a one timer from Kale Kerbashian. Funniest moment of the night happened in the third period when Yakupov tried to step up and engage Colin Martin as he carried the puck up ice. Brave, but the much bigger Martin ended up completely running over Yakupov. At least it shows he's got guts.
#20 - Brett Ritchie (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Ritchie had an OK game. First some positives. In the first period he showed a great burst of speed as he blew past Michael D'Orazio one on one for a shot on net that forced Michael Houser to make a big save. And all night he was working hard to get open near the net. It's clear he's put on a lot of strength this offseason and he's become quite the difficult player to contain. Negatively, while he was getting himself in good position to score, he was snake bitten on the night. Twice he whiffed on cross crease passes that likely would have resulted on goals. Both were tough to handle due to the velocity of the pass, but as a scoring power forward, he's going to have show that he can finish at least some of those off. Also, it was Ritchie's turnover along the boards that led to the eventual game winner by Knight (although if Joe Rogalski isn't pinching, it's a 2 on 2 and likely a dead play).
#74 - Joe Rogalski (2010 NHL Draft - Pittsburgh Penguins)
This is Rogalski's 4th OHL season and the Sting are going to rely heavily on him this season. But he did not have a strong game tonight. He was kind of all over the ice and had a lot of trouble with London's forecheck tonight. In the third period especially, he had a hard time and it seemed like every time he touched the puck in his own end, a Knight forward had already collapsed on him and created a tie up or turnover. He's got to make quicker decisions with the puck against a team with speed like London. And in overtime, it was probably his costly pinch that resulted in the game winning goal. As Brett Ritchie was pinned along the boards in London's zone, Rogalski pinched to try and help out Ritchie, but instead a turnover was created and Rogalski got trapped up ice as Griffith and Knight flew up ice to end the game. On a positive note, he picked up a secondary assist on Brandon Francisco's goal as it was his dump in that gave Harrington trouble at the blueline.
#94 - Alex Galchenyuk (NHL Draft Eligible in 2012)
Is it a little early to say Yakupov/Galchenyuk 1 and 2 in 2012? You never know what the future holds, but Galchenyuk was the most impressive player on the ice for me tonight. The first overall pick completely lived up to the hype. He's got speed to burn, but he's very smart in using it. Seems to be very patient with the puck and doesn't force the play, but when he sees an opportunity he goes for it. Like his second period goal, where he took a pass from Brandon Alderson, cut to the middle of the ice and let a wrist shot go to the top corner. His cut to the middle left Reid McNeill in awe (and on the ground as Joe Rogalski promptly ran him over). I must say, I was hearing a lot of talk about his one dimensional play, but I saw none of that tonight either. He saved a goal early in the game as he hustled back to tie up Stephen Sanza at the side of the net on an odd man rush, and was aggressive in attacking the net (with and without the puck) all night long. Colour me impressed!
#33 - John Cullen (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011, Born in 1991)
When Cullen first came to the Niagara IceDogs two years ago, I thought he was going to develop into a premier backstop in this league. But inconsistency ultimately led to his trade from the organization and he's yet to get another shot as a starter until now. He was excellent in this game (a day after shutting out the Spitfires). He's a very athletic goaltender and he made some big saves for his team tonight. Unfortunately he got left hung out to dry by his defense a few times and that was the difference. But he did get his team a point by stopping 42 of 46.
#3 - Reid McNeill (2010 NHL Draft - Pittsburgh Penguins)
McNeill looks like he has a lot more confidence this year. I thought he had an excellent game. Was active in moving the puck up ice, but most of all was intelligent about it and picked his spots well. He was also solid offensively. In the first period he saved a goal by tying up Kale Kerbashian in front of the net and then sending the free puck out of the slot and to the boards. This was generally the theme of the night as he (along with partner Michael Moffat) neutralized the Sting attack. I would have really liked to see what he could do on the powerplay, but was never given the opportunity.
#4 - Michael Moffat (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Who? I didn't even go into this game looking for him, but he made himself pretty noticeable. He was an absolute rock defensively tonight. The rookie defenseman from Waterloo looked like an OHL veteran out there. As the game went along he began receiving more and more ice time and was even out there in the final minute of regulation. He didn't give any of Sarnia's forwards an inch tonight. He negated players on the rush (off memory Brett Ritchie, Kale Kerbashian, and Alex Galchenyuk) and used his size to prevent them from generating a scoring chance. He also did a great job in the corners as I don't ever remember him losing a battle along the boards. With great size (6'1, 200lbs) and a strong defensive game, he could be a guy to watch this year.
#6 - Scott Harrington (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
If it weren't for that costly error at the blueline, Harrington would have played a pretty damn near perfect game. Even with the error, he was excellent. The error I speak of happened in the second period as Harrington tried to glove down a high dump in at the blueline, missed and then fell down, leading to an odd man rush and a goal by Brandon Francisco. It was a tough play, but Harrington needs to have confidence in his ability to win loose puck battles and let that one go, rather than jump to glove it down. But otherwise, Harrington looked fantastic. He was used on the powerplay where it appears he's ready to step up his offensive production. He also looked good in rushing the puck up ice and was very aggressive in bringing it into the offensive zone. He made a tremendous play in the first period to negate a breakaway (by I believe Jesse Staughton). He caught up to the Sting player, used his stick to redirect the puck and then gained face to face body position and put the player down to the ice. Absolutely textbook. I also liked his increasingly physical demeanor. This is going to be key for him going forward. He doesn't have ideal size for a shutdown defenseman in the NHL, so he's going to have to show he can be a physical force to really attract attention for the first round (IMO).
#10 - Danny Elser (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Not a ton to say about Elser, the former Shattuck St. Mary's forward. He's got some speed and he looks to have some offensive potential. Showed glimpses of ability but may need more time before things start coming together.
#17 - Seth Griffith (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
I thought Griffith was excellent tonight. He's definitely a good offensive player and a guy who's going to put up points in this league. He looked quite quick and was always pushing the pace of play. His pass to Jared Knight for the game winner in OT was a thing of beauty. The Sting defenseman played it really well, but Griffith showed patience on the two on one and put the puck right on Knight's stick.
#18 - Vladislav Namestnikov (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
I was expecting a little bit more from Namestnikov to be honest. There is definitely a lot of potential there. He definitely has good hands and when he had time and space (particularly on the powerplay), he made some Sting players look foolish as they tried to get the puck off him. But through stretches of the game he was largely invisible. Maybe my expectations were too large as I compared him to the way Yakupov and Galchenyuk looked out there. He did pick up a secondary assist on the powerplay as he moved the puck very effectively with the unit.
#70 - Chris Tierney (NHL Draft Eligible in 2012)
Was hearing from a lot of London fans that they didn't think he was ready, but after tonight's viewing I'd have to disagree. I thought he was the best London forward on the ice tonight. He looks like the total package offensively. Patient with the puck, worked the cycle well, was creative in making plays out of nothing. He also took the puck hard to the front of the net. While he didn't come away with any points, I thought he looked great.
#71 - Phil Varone (2009 NHL Draft - San Jose Sharks)
Varone is probably a good bet to be the Knights captain this season and he had a good game tonight. He looks a lot faster this year and seems to be ready to finally take his offensive game to the next level (in his last year in the league). He consistently went to the net looking for scoring chances and worked hard on the forecheck and the cycle. He scored a nice goal in the second period that put the Knights up 2-0. Hopefully he can keep it up (and stay healthy).
#97 - Jared Knight (2010 NHL Draft - Boston Bruins)
Probably still trying to get back into the gears of the OHL, Knight looked pretty tired at the start of the game. But as the game went on, he got stronger and stronger. Had a couple of great scoring chances in the third period as he took the puck hard to the net, but was stymied by Cullen. He was finally rewarded in OT as he finished off the Griffith pass for the game winner. The one thing I did notice tonight though was that Knight doesn't seem to have any chemistry with his linemates. A lot of his offensive chances were created by himself. It'd be such a waste of Knight's terrific release if London can't find a playmaker to pair with him.
#29 - Michael Houser (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011, Born in 1992)
I was a little bit surprised when Houser went undrafted this year. And things will be interesting for him once Igor Bobkov shows up from Anaheim. But for now he's the starter and he looked good tonight. Was aggressive in challenging the shooters and wasn't giving Sarnia's shooters much to aim at. He gave up a few rebounds, but his defense was there to clear them. Wasn't at fault on any of the Sarnia goals. If the Knights can get a solid platoon going this year, that'd be fantastic. He stopped 35 of 38 for the win.
That's it for the first game report of the 2010-2011 season! Thoughts, comments?