Everything seems to be falling into place for the Erie Otters this season.
After finishing the 2011-12 campaign at the bottom of Western Conference and missing the playoffs for the second straight year, the Otters are currently third in the West with a 13-3-1-0 record. They were perfect in October, winning 10 straight games.
Captain Connor Brown is a big reason for the success.
A sixth-round pick by the Maple Leafs in the 2012 NHL draft, the 19-year-old Toronto native was leading the OHL in scoring going into Friday with 15 goals and 21 assists in 17 games. Teammates Connor McDavid and Dane Fox weren't far behind while Oscar Dansk has provided consistent, reliable goaltending.
"The chemistry of this team is the best I've ever seen it," said Brown, now in his third year with the club. "I think our character level is really through the roof, we've got a lot of elite players and a world-class goalie. There's a winning attitude on the team this year."
It's a new experience for many of the Otters, says head coach Kris Knoblauch.
"A lot of these players have been part of the losing over the past two seasons and certainly where the players are right now is different than last year," he said in a recent interview. "Last year they didn't want to be here, they were dreading coming to the rink because things were so down and we weren't winning. This year guys are really enjoying being at the rink and being together — they really enjoy playing for each other."
The Otters are playing unselfish hockey, and it starts with Brown, who spent the off-season in the weight room and on the ice improving his skating.
"He's faster, stronger, and has more confidence to make plays," Knoblauch said. "Our start has a lot to do with him."
One of the Otters' strengths in the early going has been their improved power play, where Brown leads the team in goals and assists. The winger was also a team-leading plus-12 heading into the weekend.
His off-season regime included strength training and time on the ice with Barb Underhill, a former world champion figure skater and the Leafs' current skating consultant.
"I skated with her a lot early in the summer and my improvement has a lot to do with her," said Brown. "The Leafs staff is so knowledgeable and they push you hard. I thought that's what I needed this summer and I was pretty fortunate to get that opportunity."
Brown has a strong hockey pedigree. His father played professionally in Scotland and his older brother Jeff plays for the University of Toronto after a successful OHL career with Oshawa and Windsor.
"I was skating almost before I could walk," said Brown. "I grew up playing with my brother and him beating up on me. My family and I are all huge hockey fans and huge Leafs fans — to be drafted by the hometown team was a dream come true."
Brown admits he has a long way to go to reach the NHL but his coach believes he has the talent and determination to get there.
"He comes to play every night, which says a lot about his preparation," said Knoblauch. "There's no question he has the skill set and the hockey sense and the competiveness to play professionally and also he knows he needs to get stronger and faster and he's made huge strides in doing that."
For now, Brown is enjoying the moment and focusing on making a deep playoff push with the Otters — their first since 2011.
"The end goal is try and play for the Toronto Maple Leafs," he said. "If that's five years down the road, that's perfect, but I'm going to be patient and see where it takes me. For now, we're just excited to back on the winning track."
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