Held without a point for only the third time this season, Connor McDavid is running into a red brick wall in the OHL championship series. The Oshawa Generals, meanwhile, are humming along like a finely-tuned luxury automobile.
OSHAWA – Speed kills. You figure they’d know that in a city that exists because of the car industry. But instead of being an assembly line of sleek speedsters, the Oshawa Generals are driving the Erie Otters and their superstar nuts by commandeering the slow lane.
There are many, many reasons why Connor McDavid is special. One of the main ones is that he can do so many things at top speed. His ability to gain the zone with the puck and with speed is legendary. But he’s done next to nothing in the OHL final because the Generals have taken that aspect of the game almost completely away from him. Sure, the kid had some pretty good looks in Game 2 of the OHL championship series, a 5-1 drubbing of the Erie Otters by the Generals, but the Generals had an incredible amount of gap control. Almost non-existent were McDavid’s blinding zone entries and only a few times was he able to jump on loose pucks in the offensive zone.
The Generals, in short, are smothering the kid. And if McDavid has any designs on even returning this series to Oshawa, let alone even being a serious threat to win it, that’s going to have to change. Not only was McDavid held pointless for only the third time this season and not only does he have only one point in the series, the Generals have scored six even-strength goals and McDavid has been on the ice for four of them.
“We’re trying to get (McDavid) to go through five players every time he gets it,” said Generals coach D.J. Smith. “And that’s a tough thing to do, but we have some good players out there – (Dakota) Mermis, (Josh) Brown, (Cole) Cassels – and these guys are battling and making it tough on him.”
And when the five-man bottle clog wasn’t making it difficult, the Generals undrafted goalie Kenny Appleby was. Unlike Game 1 when he wasn’t really tested, Appleby was as responsible for stopping McDavid & Co., as anyone on the Generals, stopping 32 shots and being the best penalty killer on the ice.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that McDavid is being limited in his offensive chances. The Mermis-Brown defensive tandem was instrumental in limiting his time and space in the offensive zone in Game 2. And yes, McDavid is special. But he’s also 18 years old and still has some filling out to do. And he’s being asked, with little help, to negotiate his way around two 21-year-old overage defensemen. Brown is a sixth round pick of the Florida Panthers and Mermis is an undrafted free agent, but their size and experience is trumping McDavid’s skill and speed. You may never hear of Dakota Mermis and Josh Brown after this season, but McDavid has seen enough of them to last him for a long time.
In a situation like this for the Otters, you can’t rely on the otherworldly skills of just one player and the other Otters simply are not getting the job done. Everyone who has watched Dylan Strome play a lot this year thinks he’s playing with some kind of injury. He has an enormous amount of skill, but skating is not his forte even when he’s healthy. But with what looks like an injury, he’s even more limited in his movements. Alex DeBrincat is just a rookie and Nick Baptiste is unable to cash in on his opportunities. Another troubling trend for the Otters is that in both games the Generals have gotten stronger as the game has progressed after starting out well and surviving a push back from their opponent.
The Generals, meanwhile, look as though they’re on a mission to win their first Memorial Cup in 25 years. And they’ll get the opportunity to do that with two more wins. It’s never wise to count McDavid out, but unless he (a) figures out a way to break through the gauntlet of Generals that faces him every time he touches the puck, or (b) the Otters secondary players somehow step up their games to compensate for all the extra attention McDavid is receiving, it will be a short series. And it’s become easy for the Generals to focus so much of their defensive game plan on McDavid because the Otters other forwards haven’t been able to provide any sort of secondary scoring threat.
That all may change when the Otters get last change as the series moves to Erie Monday night. You can bet Otters coach Kris Noblauch will get his top line away from the Mermis-Brown defense pairing. If he can do that and McDavid can channel his inner superstar, the Otters may still have life. But even without getting the matchups, the Generals will not stray from their game plan.
“You look at it and they have three 100-point scorers (in McDavid, DeBrincat and Strome),” Smith said, “and if you want to cheat and you don’t want to play the right way, we’re not going to end up on top in this series. Everyone has played and bought in and that’s probably why we’re up at this point. It’s going to be a lot tougher in their building, though.”