Red Deer Roadblock

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.

 

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View from the overpriced seats

Anybody still bitching about playoff ticket prices?   Not anyone who was there for Friday’s epic battle at the KRock Centre.   Game Two had something for everyone, the best entertainment for your hockey dollar was right here in Kingston ,  except there was no storybook ending.

4,700 fans were sitting in those overpriced seats when Kingston jumped out to a 1-0 lead just two minutes in on a powerplay goal by Connor McGlynn.    With the crowd behind them,  the Fronts couldn’t find a way to build off that early momentum.

In fact, for most of the night Kingston just didn’t play like they had all year.   More importantly,  they were missing the swagger that should come with being the best in the East and beating Niagara three of four during the regular season.

Niagara clearly looked like the top ‘Dogs,  dominating the Frontenacs for much of the night.  Early in the third period after putting two quick ones past Jeremy Helvig, they had a 5-2 lead and it looked like this one was over.  Hopes of a deep playoff run for the Frontenacs were fading by the minute.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.   Things got so bad coach Paul McFarland went back to his number one goalie Lucas Peressini.

You might remember Lucas?   A year ago Peressini was the OHL’s best goalie,  now stapled to the end of the Frontenacs bench finishing out his overage year.  There was no expectation Peressini was coming in to kickstart a comeback,  he was sent in to ‘mop up’ and save Helvig’s confidence from being completely destroyed.

But at that point the momentum changed,  and for the first time in a long time the Fronts faithful got really loud.   As loud as I have heard it for hockey at the KRock Centre.

The Kingston hockey crowd has a reputation for being pretty quiet even when they show up in big numbers.  But not on this night, they paid their money and they were going to be heard.   They didn’t wait for something to happen, several times the crowd spontaneously began chanting ‘Go Fronts Go’,  which never happens unless Rockin’ Reid is standing in front of three fans on the big screen offering them free pizza slices.  Reid was nowhere to be seen and the whole building was rocking. Cheering every hit, every scoring chance and every big play.   Yes, sitting in these vastly overpriced seats,  the home crowd had come alive and willed the Fronts to a spectacular comeback.

Feeding off the crowd Kingston rallied and scored three goals in the last ten minutes to knot it at 5-5 and force overtime.   The momentum carried over into the extra period, Fronts outshot Niagara 18-6 in OT and had chance after chance,  but could not beat Niagara goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic.  At one point Nedeljkovic went down injured,   it created a very long delay and it appeared he may not continue.  No such luck for Kingston.   Then with a 2nd overtime looming,  faceoff in the Kingston end, Niagara’s  Anthony DiFruscia beats Peressini with a wrister and just like that the night was over.

Maybe this franchise is really cursed.  On a night when they clearly deserved a much better fate the hockey Gods wouldn’t let it happen.   If the Fronts can play in St. Catharines the way they played in the last 30 minutes of Game Two this series is not over. Kingston fans seem pretty confident they will be back home for Game Five next Friday.

THIS &THAT

The Fronts make the 2nd round for the first time in almost two decades and all anyone wants to talk about is ticket prices.   That’s your worst nightmare if you’re the Fronts organization.  According to work done by our friends at CKWS-TV,  Fronts have the most expensive seats of the eight cities left in the OHL playoffs.  When you have starved your fan base of decent entertainment for two decades, why try to stick it to them when you finally get there?    They should have done ‘Throwback Thursday” for Game One and sold every seat in the place for 10 bucks  ..  Look for Helvig to be back in for Game Three Sunday  …Where would this team be without Dal Colle?  … Now that they’re getting a little attention,  why don’t the Fronts bring back some of their former players to be honoured pre-game.  A guy like Mike Moffat would be a good example.  This franchise pays no attention to its 40-plus year past.