Defenceman Miles Liberati and his North Bay Battalion, along with Anton Cederholm and the Portland Winterhawks, are just one series win away from joining Bo Horvat and the London Knights at the Memorial Cup in May.
For Cederholm and the Winterhawks, this was a position most expected them to be in at this time of the year. The Portland roster is stacked with top-end prospects such as Matt Dumba, Nic Petan and Derrick Pouliot, to name a few.
For the Battalion, not many saw this coming.
It’s not like North Bay is a seventh seed that has come out of nowhere. They did finish second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 38-24-4-2, good for 82 points, but with virtually no big-name stars on their team, they have flown under the radar. The Battalion have four drafted players on their roster: a second-rounder, two fourths and a seventh. The team their playing next, Guelph, has 10, including five guys taken in the first two rounds.
“This is our first year in North Bay and I don’t think people expected us to go too far,” said Liberati, who finished the season with nine goals in 65 games. “I think we have proved everybody wrong. We are one of those teams that doesn’t have any first round picks or big name guys, we just have a lot of guys that want to work hard and win.”
The hardworking game that the Battalion play was on notice in their third round series against Oshawa, a team that most people were picking to win. A team that features a star-studded offence with the likes of Canucks prospect Cole Cassels along with Scott Laughton and Michael Dal Colle.
The result? North Bay swept them in four games.
“We knew going in that we were both similar teams,” said Liberati. “I think we established our fore check early in the game and we just kept going at them hard and capitalized on our chances.”
Now it’s on to Guelph. The No. 1 overall team during the regular season. A team that had four defenceman score over 40 points, three of them going over the 50-point plateau. North Bay had only two players, forward or defence, score over 50 points.
“They like to finish their checks a lot,” said Liberati. “They are a really hard fore-checking team and their defenceman like to activate themselves into the rush. We have been working hard in practice to counter that.”
As for Liberati, this isn’t his first kick at the can when it comes to the OHL Championship. He won it last year with the London Knights. But last year he was a rookie on a deep team, only seeing action on a limited basis. This year he is more involved.
“For me personally, this year feels a lot more special,” he said. “I am playing in every game and contributing where I can, which gives you more of a special feeling knowing that you are helping your team.”
The trade to the Battalion earlier in the season seems to be working out just fine for Liberati, the Canucks seventh round pick last June. His overall game is drastically improving and his confidence level is high. He scored seven goals in his final 22 regular season games and has had an even or better plus/minus in 14-of-17 playoff games.
“I have been working a lot on my defensive game and playing in a defensive style of game here is helping me becoming more of an all-round defenceman,” said Liberati. “I definitely have a bigger role here; I am playing some penalty-kill, and I am playing on the power-play.”
-As mentioned earlier, Anton Cederholm (right) and the Portland Winterhawks are off to the final round of the WHL playoffs where they will play the Edmonton Oil Kings. This marks the fourth straight season Portland has gone to the championship series, and the third consecutive year they will face the Oil Kings. Game 1 goes on Friday night with the entire series being broadcast on ShawTV.
-Cederholm had one assist in the third round as Portland ousted Kelowna in five games.
-The season has come to an end for a trio of Canucks prospects, as Cole Cassels, Brendan Gaunce, and Dane Fox were all eliminated in the third round.
-Cassels had four assists in four games during the third round as his Generals fell in four games to the Liberati and North Bay.
-Much like Bo Horvat and the London Knights felt in the second round, Gaunce, Fox, and the Otters felt the train that is the Guelph Storm, falling in five games.
-Fox finished the series with a goal and two assists, while Gaunce picked up a goal and an assist.