“If if’s and but’s were candies & nuts, wouldn’t it be a Merry Christmas!” – former football great ‘Dandy’ Don Meredith
For the Kingston Frontenacs the Road to Red Deer and this year’s Memorial Cup came to a crashing halt in St. Catharines Wednesday night, the best shot they’ve had in twenty years ended with Niagara fans throwing brooms on the ice to celebrate a sweep.
The Fronts were 2,247 miles and a dozen more playoff wins away from Red Deer.
So now we go back to being the OHL’s all-time leader in; could have’s, would have’s and should have’s (Dandy Don nailed it).
Note to self; this time let’s blame it on the hot goaltender who stole the series.
A bitter pill to swallow for die hard Kingston hockey fans, who were ‘all in’ on the dream this was going to be the year. It was easy to be fooled, the hometown Fronts played like champions all season and won their first Eastern Conference title. They set franchise records for wins and points along the way. Lots to be proud of.
They exorcised those playoff demons that haunted them for two decades, actually getting through the first round – stopping Oshawa in five games. It’s where you start counting for real in most OHL cities, but no small accomplishment in this town. Following that giant leap, nothing could stop this team; it was Red Deer or bust.
Then they ran into ‘Ned’. That’s Alex Nedeljkovic, the six-foot, 20 year old Niagara goalie,. a second round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. This is Ned’s third OHL stop, thrown a lifeline when he was acquired from the trainwreck in Flint.
Ned was pretty much unstoppable against Kingston. But to say a hot goalie ended the dream for the Fronts wouldn’t quite be fair or accurate. Ned was spectacular, but Kingston never played the way they did all season. It’s really hard to explain why?
That’s the question that will haunt the players, it’s coaches and fans for a long time. In the last ten minutes of regulation in that thrilling Game Two at KRock, the Fronts pumped three goals past Ned, making him look almost human. If Kingston played like that for the entire series, there’s no way this ends the way it did. But they didn’t.
Kingston’s top guns produced, but the secondary scoring was missing. Too often they started slow and were back on their heels . The goaltending wasn’t as good as it should have been, even going back to the Oshawa series. Coach Paul McFarland couldn’t decide who was his number-one, that’s never good for the goalies or the team. Mishandling the goalies showed his inexperience, as did the inability to change the game plan to counter what Niagara was doing. They had beaten the Ice Dogs 3 of 4 during the season and finished 20 points ahead of them in the standings.
Niagara coach Marty Williamson is going to his fifth conference final in 12 OHL seasons. That’s the difference. He’s been there done that and knows how to win when it really matters. With McFarland, the Fronts have a young head coach facing big time playoff expectations for the first time.
At playoff time when the pressure turns up, you start to “leak a little oil”. You overthink things, your team gets tense and it hurts more than it helps. When it’s over you’ve hopefully learned some valuable lessons, but I’d rather have a coach who has already learned those lessons – coaching someplace else.
What about the future? This is a veteran team that was built for a long playoff run, with a lot of guys moving on. Michael Dal Colle, who was electric from the day he arrived, will continue his season with the New York Islanders AHL farm team. What a pleasure he was too watch. Many others will move on in hockey and in life, remembering fondly a great regular season & the banner they earned, but carrying with them the weight of what could have been? They’ll watch the Memorial Cup like the rest of us, knowing they likely could have beaten any team that’s there.
Kingston gave up a boatload of draft picks to get Dal Colle and Desrochers. That’s going to mean long waits between picks at the draft table and missing out on building blocks for the future.
They mortgaged the future to take a run at it, good for them, but when it doesn’t work, it will make those long nights ahead even longer.
It will be another decade or more before we see another Kingston team as good as this one. Until then, 2016 was just another dagger to the heart for Fronts fans.