BARRIE, Ont. - The Barrie Colts cruised through the first two rounds of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, sweeping the Kingston Frontenacs and the Oshawa Generals.
But the second-seeded Colts ran into some trouble against the Eastern Conference's top-ranked Belleville Bulls and needed a win in Game 7 on Monday to advance to the OHL final.
As they head to London to face the Knights on Friday in Game 1, the Colts feel the tough series against the Bulls will work in their favour.
"Winning it in Game 7 is always a good feeling," said Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk. "To go win Game 7 in their rink is quite a feat."
The Knights have had a week off after needing just five games to eliminate the Plymouth Whalers in the Western Conference final.
"We have a bit of momentum from the last series, and the guys are pretty excited to get this going," said Colts captain Ryan O’Connor.
Barrie's won its only OHL championship in 2000, but the Colts have been to the finals three times. Most recently, they were swept by the Windsor Spitifires in 2010.
In order for the Colts to win their second title in franchise history, they will need goalie Mathias Niederberger to continue his stellar play.
The undrafted overager from Dusseldorf, Germany, leads the league with a .940 save percentage in 15 games.
"It starts with goaltending," O’Connor said. "Both teams have really solid goaltenders (who are) really hot right now."
Niederberger has held the fort as the Colts have played without a number of key players in their lineup due to suspension, including O’Connor for a 10-game stretch.
"Another big thing is composure and staying out of the penalty box," O’Connor said. "Both teams have skilled forwards, offensive forwards, and they can put the puck in the net."
The Knights won both regular-season meetings with the Colts, but the games were hard-fought. London needed a shootout for a 3-2 win in Barrie on Oct. 20 before winning in London 5-3 in late November.
"When you get the power-play chances, you’ve got to capitalize and score goals," said O’Connor, who mans the point on the top unit. "That’s where you’ll win hockey games."
At the other end, the Colts will have to attempt to keep London’s potent forwards from the goalmouth, a task made more difficult with defenceman and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jake Dotchin suspended for the first four games of the series.
"We’ve had guys in and out of the lineup, no different than London, all year long," Hawerchuk said. "Good teams have guys that can come in and fill those roles and do the job.
"Your whole team is on the same page, and if someone goes out with an injury or suspension, you have someone who can come in and do the job."
O’Connor expects he and his fellow defencemen will have their hands full, facing a Knights team with three gritty, offensively gifted lines.
"Not only are they skilled and they can stickhandle and dangle, but they’re willing to go to the dirty areas and find those goals," O’Connor said. "You have to find ways to prevent that."