The Oshawa Generals knew they had a tall task on their hands. Facing Erie in the OHL final, the Gens had to figure out a way to stop Otters superstar Connor McDavid, who came into Game 1 with a dizzying 42 points in 15 playoff games. At the end of the night, McDavid had been on the ice for more goals-against than goals-for and the Gens thrilled their fans with a 4-1 win.
If Game 1 was any indication, this series will be fought in both the trenches and the war rooms. Oshawa's strategy for battening down McDavid was to have Vancouver Canucks prospect Cole Cassels on against the consensus No. 1 pick overall in the NHL draft this summer as much as possible.
“They did a good job shutting us down and clogging up the middle,” McDavid said. “It's not just their 'D,' they play as a five-man unit.”
Viktor Tikhonov would have been proud of how Oshawa coach D.J. Smith deployed Cassels, Calgary pick Hunter Smith and Bradley Latour up front and Florida prospect Josh Brown with Dakota Mermis on defense basically every time McDavid was on the ice. The line-matching overall on the night was incredible. Along with the aforementioned match-up, Oshawa pretty much always had big Montreal pick Michael McCarron out against another crazy-good 2015 draft prospect from Erie, Dylan Strome. And Erie put out rough Kings prospect Jake Marchment out against Oshawa sniper Michael Dal Colle, the Islanders pick.
The only time McDavid pierced the Generals was on a power play, when Cassels was not on the ice. Otherwise, Cassels did what no other team has been able to do during these playoffs: neutralize the unholy force that is McDavid.
“They really play an aggressive game with a lot of tight checking,” said Erie coach Kris Knoblauch. “And it's not just the style of play – it's the personnel they have.”
Cassels has been a revelation for Oshawa this season. The son of former NHLer Andrew Cassels, the Ohio product ratcheted up his offensive game while at the same time maintaining the gritty edge that makes him a physical threat every night. What was most interesting about Game 1 is that early on, Oshawa kept McDavid at bay by going on the offensive: After all, the kid's way less dangerous if he doesn't have the puck. In an effort to generate chances, McDavid would sometimes loop back to his own blueline and lope up the ice with the puck, weaving past checkers. But he could never get past all of them and the Otters were held off the board until that second period power play, where McDavid made a fantastic incursion into the zone and Dallas pick Remi Elie finished off the play.
At one point in the third, McDavid even lined up as a right winger with Strome at center, but positioning himself far on the other side of the ice like a wide receiver in football, no doubt hoping to be sprung for a long breakaway off the draw (it didn't happen).
Mermis managed to make the most effective defense of the night against McDavid when the veteran blueliner engaged in an epic crease-front battle with the phenom, eventually causing McDavid to lose his cool and take a cross-checking penalty.
Though McDavid has nothing more to prove before the draft – he's definitely going first overall to the Edmonton Oilers – there's undoubtedly a contingent out there that would love to see Erie win this series, since that would also give the Otters a spot in the Memorial Cup. This is also McDavid's last chance to win a junior title, since his Otters were cast out by Guelph in the Western Conference final last season.
Cassels and company made a statement in Game 1 that it won't be a cakewalk and the straight-razor question now is if the Gens can pull off the trick three more times. For his part, McDavid was ready for Game 2 tonight.
“We're fine,” he said. “We've been in this situation before, losing the first game of the series. We'll battle back.”