PLAYING FIELD: Colts fans pin hopes on best team in years

This 2022-23 season roster is the franchise’s best since one that lost in seven games in the OHL Finals a decade ago

A dog breakfast in recent weeks, the picture of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs is clearing up as the day progresses.

Two games – both in northern Ontario – on Sunday will decide who the Colts will open with on Thursday at Sadlon Arena.

When the Wolves beat the Greyhounds on the street in Sault Ste. Marie, then Sudbury will jump to fifth place in the Eastern Conference and play fourth-placed Peterborough Petes.

This scenario will leave the Colts with the Hamilton Bulldogs no matter what happens in North Bay in a game between the battalion and the Mississauga Steelheads.

The most interesting potential scenario is a repeat of last year’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals between the Colts and the Steelheads. To do this, Sudbury must lose to the Greyhounds while the Steelheads must win their game in North Bay.

If Sudbury gets a single point in the soo or wins in a shootout, the Colts will open against the Wolves.

If the Barrie vs. Mississauga series comes to fruition, it means local product James Hardie, the Steelheads’ co-captain, will once again lead his team against the club he grew up with.

Last year, Hardie scored the overtime winner in Game 4 in Double OT, tying the series with two. The Innisfiler native’s goal proved a crucial marker as the Steelheads clinched three straight wins in overtime after the double win to beat the Colts, who were struggling with a string of injuries, in six games.

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Whichever game is played in the first round, the club are in a dramatically different position than they were a year ago.

First, Marty Williamson’s team is healthy. Forward Tyler Savard is expected to return and defender Connor Punnet, who left Thursday’s game against Wolves after a heavy clash, is about on the same schedule.

Special Note: Playoff-time injury reports are abstract concepts.

The fact is that last year the Colts’ top two players, Brandt Clarke and goaltender Mack Guzda, were eliminated through injury either before the playoffs or, in Guzda’s case, in key games. Evan Vierling, Beau Jelsma and Declan McDonnell all either missed several playoff games or played through injuries.

Not only is the infirmary closed this year, but the Colts have the two hottest players in the league in Clarke and Vierling. Their exploits somewhat shielded the fine play of Ethan Cardwell, who was the Colts’ top player in last year’s postseason, scoring four goals and adding two assists.

The above-average winger will be looking for an even bigger and longer run this time; The potential San Jose Sharks cracked 90 points (43G, 47A) and is one of only a few active OHLers to see action in the 2019 playoffs as he played five games with the Saginaw Spirit en route to the Western Conference Finals.

Remember back when playoff series wins were a regular feature in these parts and the word “pandemic” was something we all learned in 10th grade biology.

If there’s one weak spot with the Colts, it’s a lack of playoff experience, although that’s due in part to the canceled 2020 postseason and scrubbed campaign that followed because… well, we don’t have to go there.

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As unbelievable as it sounds, Clarke, currently the hottest commodity in junior hockey whose name is not Connor Bedard, has yet to play in an OHL playoff game.

Another potential problem is a lack of depth in the front; If four of a kind and Cardwell don’t fill the net, goals could be difficult to come by. That’s also a hallmark of playoff hockey, and shades of it were shown in Thursday night’s 4-2 win over Wolves on home ice.

The 2022-23 Colts are the best team in the franchise since losing to the London Knights in seven games in the OHL Finals 10 years ago. Whether this lineup has what it takes to win the Eastern Conference and return to the OHL Finals will be decided over the next six weeks.

First, the Colts must come through one of Hamilton, Mississauga, or Sudbury. The Bulldogs beat the Colts 7-5 on home ice a few weeks ago. This setback left an odor. It happens.

Hockey teams should never look ahead, but columnists tend to. So let’s assume the Colts can take care of anyone who rolls into town on Thursday night.

That’s where it gets interesting, because there’s not much to choose from among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference. In fact, fourth seed Peterborough wasn’t the sum of his parts for much of this season and it’s not hard to imagine either the Wolves or the Bulldogs giving the Petes a difficult run.

Strange things have been happening, but the Colts will likely face North Bay Battalion in the second round. The table and the national rankings tell us that the Colts would be slight underdogs. We don’t disagree, but the Colts are also the much hotter team as of the close.

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The same assessment applies to a potential Eastern Conference Colts ’67 Finals series.

Suffice it to say, it could be an interesting spring for a playoff-starved city and junior hockey franchise.

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