I caught the Ice Dogs and the Otters last night in St. Catharines. I was undeniably curious to catch the new look Dogs in action after adding Steve Shipley, Tim Billingsley, Jason Wilson and David Pacan in recent weeks. And quite frankly, they didn't disappoint.
The score was close, but generally speaking, the play was not. The Dogs squeaked away with a 5-4 victory, but outshot the Otters 51-31 during the game. This included a dominant third period where they put 23 shots on Ramis Sadikov. Once the forward lines develop more chemistry, this team is going to be one to watch in the East (if they weren't already before the moves).
The Otters defense had a lot of trouble with Niagara's size and speed combination. They were consistently outworked in their own end and were visibly tired by the end of the game. All four of the Dogs lines worked the cycle to perfection and really did well to gain and maintain possession in the offensive end. Erie's Ramis Sadikov had a great game. He looks poised for a good year. He's so big and his hybrid style helps him to take up a lot of the net.
The Dogs were also helped by 4 power play goals, as Erie's penalty kill unit had some trouble. Although in the end, Steve Shipley's even strength tap in goal in the third (the Dogs first even strength goal of the game) sealed the victory.
#5 - David Shields (2009 NHL Draft - St. Louis Blues)
Shields had a game that was pretty much on par for him. He's a steady influence on the ice and someone you don't really notice unless you're paying attention to him. For a defenseman that can be a good thing. Last year I did notice that he had difficulty with forwards on the rush, and last night was no different. Steve Shipley blew by him just inside the blueline, leaving him flat footed. Shields is solid in coverage, but it looks like he can still stand to improve his agility and anticipation.
#7 - Brady Austin (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Is he a defenseman or a forward? That's the question I want answered. He played forward last night, centering the team's third line. But I've seen him play defense previously and I've felt he's looked better there, using his size and aggressiveness to push forwards around. He still throws his body around as a forward (hit Ryan Strome from behind at one point in the second), but I didn't really notice him offensively at all. I wonder if he has the puck skill to excel as a forward, especially as a center?
#10 - Tyler Hostetter (Signed as a Free Agent by the Philadelphia Flyers)
I've always liked Hostetter. Definitely one of the more underrated defenseman in the league. He's not really a flashy guy, but someone who's quietly a good two way defender. He makes good decisions with the puck and had a couple of nice rushes into Niagara's zone, particularly in the third period when Erie was really trying to shift momentum. Defensively, I think his lateral mobility and general agility help him to play both off the rush and in the zone. I'm not really sure what type of NHL defenseman he could be, but he's a solid player.
#14 - Greg McKegg (2010 NHL Draft - Toronto Maple Leafs)
The new captain of the Erie Otters was actually pretty quiet until the third period. In the third, he was one of the only players coming alive for the Otters. On the powerplay, he came off the side wall and tried to throw a pass cross crease to Anthony Luciani, but Dogs forward Andrew Agozzino ended up tipping it into his own net. And later, to draw the Otters within one goal with about 5 minutes remaining, he cut to the middle of the ice with the puck and left a drop pass to Mike Cazzola who snapped the puck past Mark Visentin. The Otters are going to need McKegg (and Cazzola) to pick up where they left off last season...sans Zach Torquato.
#17 - David Broll (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Was kind of excited to see him, but ultimately didn't notice him at all. He had a couple of big hits in the first period, but disappeared after that. I'll definitely hope to see him again.
#8 - Alex Friesen (2010 NHL Draft - Vancouver Canucks)
Alex is still one of the hardest working forwards in the league. His speed is hard to contain and he's relentless in pursuit of the puck. He and linemate Andrew Agozzino have such good chemistry and the two of them are constantly creating off the rush. Interestingly enough, Alex is one of the only forwards I'd actually trust on the point of the powerplay. He's QB'd the Dogs powerplay for the past year and a bit. Tonight he made a great defensive play as Shawn Szydlowski came flying down the wing on the penalty kill (one on one with Friesen), but Alex angled him off the puck and negated a serious scoring chance. Friesen added a goal and two assists on the powerplay too. All the secondary scoring the Dogs have added is only going to help him have an even better offensive season than last year.
#10 - Steve Shipley (2010 NHL Draft - Buffalo Sabres)
Who are you? Is this the same Steve Shipley as last year? Where the heck did the speed and acceleration come from? Shipley looked fantastic off the rush, blowing past Erie defenders (in particular David Shields on one play). What was once considered a serious fault, has to now be considered a weapon. Definitely looks like he's worked on it over the summer. Shipley had a great game all around though. On the powerplay in the third, Shipley took a rebound, did a dipsy doodle around Sadikov and got it out to Wilson at the edge of the crease for a tap in. He also picked up the game winning goal by going hard to the net following his own rebound and putting home the garbage. If he can increase his consistency this season, he'll have a big year.
#13 - Freddie Hamilton (2010 NHL Draft - San Jose Sharks)
Hamilton looked quite good on the powerplay, as he worked hard down low and did a great job moving the puck around quickly. He picked up a couple of assists. However, at even strength he wasn't nearly as noticeable I thought. I think it's a case of acclimatizing to new linemates (Shipley and Wilson for most of the night).
#15 - Jason Wilson (2010 NHL Draft - New York Rangers)
Truthfully, I didn't notice Wilson at all until the 3rd period, when he came to life. He grabbed a garbage goal off the aforementioned nice feed from Shipley on the powerplay. He also picked up an assist on the game winning goal by Shipley by breaking into the offensive zone with speed and getting the puck to a streaking Shipley for a shot (it was ultimately the rebound that Shipley put in for the goal). In the past, I've always noticed how physical Wilson is though and didn't see that tonight. Hopefully as he becomes more used to his new surroundings, we'll start to see the heavy hitter return.
#18 - Ryan Strome (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Strome was the best player on the ice. I left incredibly impressed with him. Considering this seems to be carrying over from the preseason, this might be a permanent fixture. He showed a lot of offensive creativity. He undressed an Otters defenseman (I believe Derek Holden) with a beautiful toe drag to the middle of the ice, but couldn't beat Sadikov on the partial break. But he created a lot of room for himself with his hard work on the cycle too. He, Myles Doan, and David Pacan were ruthless in puck possession and really tired out the Otters defense. Strome may not be big, but he protects the puck very well, and his agility helps him to keep defenders from squaring him up. Strome also showed outstanding on ice vision. On the powerplay , he found a cutting Dougie Hamilton with a tape to tape pass and Hamilton buried it to tie the game at 2. He had another assist on the powerplay, but also scored. He was quarterbacking the powerplay at the time and perfectly timed a shot through a defender's legs, going five hole on Sadikov (catching him moving from right to left). If Strome continues to play like this during the year, he could easily be a top 40 NHL pick. Colour me very impressed.
#22 - David Pacan (2009 NHL Draft - Chicago Blackhawks)
Fresh off getting booted from the University of Vermont, Pacan suited up for his first game with the Dogs (and in the OHL). I thought he looked excellent. He's big and he plays big. Pacan cycled the puck very well and Erie's defenders had a tough time getting it off him. He also knows his role and goes hard to the net looking for loose pucks. Pacan added a secondary assist on the Jason Wilson powerplay goal. It'll be interesting to see him get more comfortable.
#23 - Mitchell Theoret (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Theoret was great tonight, even if he got less ice time as the game went on. I was really impressed by his hustle and forechecking ability. He was another forward who gave the Otters' defenders a tough time on the cycle. But Theoret also created off the rush and looks to have a lot more offensive confidence this season. Considering how well he played in the preseason, I'd love to see the Dogs find a way to get him involved more as it's clear he's got more to offer than your typical fourth liner.
#27 - Dougie Hamilton (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
When I saw Bob Mackenzie list Hamilton as a potential top 10 selection for the 2011 draft, I was a little surprised. But the word was he had improved a lot and was fantastic at the Ivan Hlinka tournament. The word was right. Hamilton looked massively improved last night and really controlled the pace of play at both ends. He looks confidence and skilled in rushing the puck, with his skating and acceleration being much improved. He's taking chances offensively that he wasn't last year, but he's also quick to get back to his own end. He scored a beautiful goal on the powerplay, as he found space, cut to the net and one timed a pass from Ryan Strome to the back of the net. It was a laser. It actually seemed like he never left the ice on the powerplay and seems to be much more poised in moving the puck along the umbrella. And on defense, he was physical and controlled. He could have a monster year.
#29 - Mark Visentin (2010 NHL Draft - Phoenix Coyotes)
Visentin didn't have the best of games by his standard. He seemed to be fighting the puck a bit. The first goal against him was kind of weak. It was a partially screened shot from his right side, as Shayne Rover tried to get his stick/body in front of a wrist shot. I don't think Rover touched it, but it was a bit of a knuckler. It seemed like Visentin might have been caught a little bit too deep in his net. The second goal against was off a juicy rebound to Matt Paton in the slot. Third goal was no chance, deflection off his own player (Agozzino). Fourth goal was probably one he would have liked to have back too. Mike Cazzola let a wrister go from the slot that caught Visentin deep in his net again and beat him under the glove. Overall, Visentin was giving up more rebounds than he usually does too. But he did make some big saves when he needed too and ultimately worked hard enough to save 27 of 31 for the win. But the Dogs are going to need him to be better and I have no doubt he will be.
That's it, anyone else catch the new look Dogs in action?