The Barrie Colts took a big step forward this season, but their biggest challenge lies just ahead.

From last place overall to Central Division champions, the Colts have come a long way in working their way back to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) playoffs. As happy they are to earn the invite, the focus remains on much bigger things.

“You work all year to get to this point,” Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk said ahead of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final series against the Mississauga Steelheads, which opens March 22 at the Barrie Molson Centre. “The dance is here and now you’ve got to put your dancing shoes on.”

The Colts (42-21-4-1) will have to start the series without one of the OHL’s brightest young stars after the league suspended top NHL prospect Andrei Svechnikov for four games. The Russian import was handed a five-minute checking to the head major and game misconduct for a hit on Sudbury’s Liam Ross late in team’s final regular season game on March 17.

“We’re not happy about it, but there’s nothing we can do about it, so, we’ve just got to move on,” Hawerchuk said of decision to suspend Svechnikov.

With Aiden Brown also out another two to three weeks with a bruised spleen, the Colts will need others, like rookie Sam Rhodes, to possibly step into bigger roles.

“We talked all year that even if you’re not getting minutes or games at certain times, at some point you’re going to be part of it,” Hawerchuk said. “With Svechnikov and Brown out all of a sudden some guys are going to be part of it. We’re going to need everybody.”

The Steelheads (33-32-1-2), who finished 20 points behind Barrie, also took it on the chin on the OHL disciplinary front when overage forward and second-line centre Mathieu Foget was suspended for four games for a blindside hit on Kingston’s Paul Larabie on March 18.

Swedish import defenceman Jacob Moverare, out with a knee injury since early January, is also not expected to return in the first round, while overage power forward Trent Fox might not be back until later in the series.

After a four-win, eight-loss stint in January, the Colts finished the final seven weeks playing some of their best hockey of the season, winning 15 games and losing five. While the Steelheads took the season series 4-2 between the two Central rivals, including winning the last three games, the Colts head into the playoffs a confident group.

“You always got to believe, right?” Hawerchuk said. “They’ll be tight games for sure. You got two similar teams, so it should make for a good series.”

Neither team can afford to take a foot off the pedal.

“All the little things matter, right from faceoffs to little plays, little battles,” the Colts head coach added. “They’re all going to add up in the end.”

 

TALE OF THE TAPE:

(2) Barrie vs. (7) Mississauga

Head to head: Mississauga, 4-2.

Power play: Colts 6th, Steelheads 2nd

Penalty killing: Colts 10th, Steelheads 15th

 

GOALTENDING: The biggest question mark for both teams heading into this series is between the pipes.

Overager Leo Lazarev (3.23 GAA, .898 SV%) got into 52 games with Barrie this season and the former Ottawa 67’s goalie will look to carry a team deep into the OHL playoffs for the first time. After some mid-season struggles, the veteran was strong down the stretch.

Look for the Steelheads to start Emanuel Vella (3.28 GAA, .896 SV%) over former Barrie triple-A minor midget Jacob Ingham. Vella got the nod in the last three meetings between the two teams and won all of them.

 

DEFENCE: The Colts have one of the OHL’s most underrated blue lines led by captain Justin Murray, overager T.J. Fergus and breakout star Joey Keane. NHL draft prospect Tyler Tucker is one of the OHL’s top open-ice hitters and rounds out a solid top four. Second-year player Chris Cameron and rookie Nathan Allensen have been steady and at times been required to log bigger minutes and roles.

The Steelheads lean heavily on Nicolas Hague on the point and for good reason. The Vegas Golden Knights prospect scored 35 goals – becoming the first OHL defenceman to do so in 18 years – and led the team in scoring with 78 points.

“He’s like a fourth forward when he’s out there,” Hawerchuk said of Hague. “He’s always looking for that little gap or space to slide into. He moves the puck well and supports it, and gets himself available. Definitely a guy you always have to be aware of.”

With Moverare out, the Steelheads acquired Reagan O’Grady from Sudbury at the trade deadline and the veteran has paired with Hague to form the team’s top pair. Rookie Thomas Harley has taken on a bigger role and the first-round pick hasn’t looked at all out of place. He’s shown solid composure and maturity paired with overager Stephen Gibson. Rookie Isaac Walker and Ryan Wells provide steady minutes as the third pair.

 

FORWARDS: Led by the OHL’s lone 50-goal scorers this season in OHL scoring champ Aaron Luchuk and Dmitry Sokolov, the Colts, who finished third overall with 297 goals, are loaded up front.

The top line of Luchuk, Sokolov and Svechnikov combined for an impressive 140 goals and 283 points. Even without 40-goal man Svechnikov – who did that in just 44 games – Barrie can still march out the likes of 30-goal scorer Lucas Chiodo along with Jason Willms and Zach Magwood, who struck for 27 each. Add in Jaden Peca and first overall selection Ryan Suzuki and the Barrie offence is as deep as any team in the East. They’ll need that depth with the dynamic Svechnikov suspended.

“In the playoffs, secondary scoring always comes to the forefront,” Hawerchuk said. “(Steelheads) get the same thing from their guys as well, so it’s important you got other lines that can come through if your big line is shut down.”

Led by NHL first-round picks Owen Tippett (Florida) and Michael McLeod (New Jersey), Mississauga can also fill the net in a big way. McLeod’s blazing speed can be a load to handle for opposing defenders, while Tippett just might be the best pure scorer in the league. Armed with a big six-foot-two, 204 lbs. frame and a potent shot, the Panthers prospect has collected 95 goals and 170 points in just 159 OHL games.

The Colts can ill afford to give the likes of Tippett, McLeod, Albert Michnac or Ryan McLeod much room to operate.

“All their snipers are the same way,” Hawerchuk said. “They’ll be looking at our guys the same way. You want to take time and space away when you can. One man can’t do it. It’s got to be a five-man unit.”

The Steelheads have plenty of scoring depth up front as well. Foget, Fox and Cole Carter, acquired from Kitchener at the trade deadline, all scored over 20 goals this season.

 

Photo: The Barrie Colts will be without sniper Andrei Svechnikov when they face the Mississauga Steelheads in game one of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarter-final Series, March 22. Miranda Zilkowsky photo.

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