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UHL Playoff Reviewed - UHL Final

Hamilton Jaguars - Gander Slapshots 4-0

Jags Jackpot after sweeping Slapshots

Finishing the UHL season with a 16-2 record, there's not much to say against the Hamilton Jaguars. Nevertheless the Gander Slapshots left the ice with a somewhat sour taste.

The underdogs put up a solid performance but were left empty handed by a ruthless Jaguars squad.

"It was fair in the sense that the Jaguars were the better team.  I think we deserved a better fate than a sweep because the games were pretty close for the most part and it seems we should have snuck a win or two in somehow, but the best team won," GM Tom Wagner admitted.

His counterpart Mike D'Ambrosio was aware of the task going into tthe series as favourites.

"I'm not surprised we did well as I thought we had one of the top teams, but it was definitely unexpected to go 16-2. I don't think you can even expect things to go that well. The team had a great second half and we just seemed to keep getting better as the season went on so it was awesome to see things click at the right time"

Enjoying home ice, the Jaguars drew first blood in game 1 when a Kyle Palmieri deflection found its way past a near perfect Pekka Rinne. The Slapshots didn't sit back and took a surprising lead thanks to goals by Konecny and Krejci. An upset was in the making but when Brendan Gallagher took a tripping penalty with 90 second lefts to the game, the Jaguar pulled Robin Lehner to create a 2-man advantage on the ice. 

Despite heroic defending it was Mike Zibanejad who got the crowd rocking with 45 seconds left to play when he tied the game at 2 and into overtime.

Unexpectedly, the overtime saw plenty of action on front of both nets but experience paid off when Zach Parise's wrap around beat Rinne on the near post to earn Jags the first victory of the series.

Two days later, the Slapshots did not show any signs of feeling heartbroken.

The team outshot the Jaguars 33-27 but were stonewalled by a stellar Robin Lehner who finished with a 32-save performance. Three third period goals turned around a 1-0 deficit for a 3-1 victory.

It was rendez-vous in game 3 in Gander, where the Slapshots were the most dominant team but unable to solve the Swedish wall. Nevertheless the game had plenty of talking points afterwards.

After Gabriel Landeskog broke a 1-1 tie early in the second period, the Slapshots felt they had tied the game but much to the disbelieve of the whole Slapshots bench, referee Mike Leggio called "no goal" after an alleged push of the goaltender into the Jaguars net following a Sean Monahan shot.

The video booth in Toronto required 10 minutes to review the play and although Lehner seemed to be losing his balance prior to the contact with Travis Konecny, the call was made and the goal was disallowed.

Lehner wasn't to be moved or imbalanced any further and finished with 35 saves in a 2-1 victory.

Wagner identified goaltending was the major separator this series. "Goaltending was the key.  Rinne was fine for us, but Lehner was an absolute wall.  We outshot them some games but just could not get many goals through"

Leading 3-0, and the title up for grabs, the Jaguars relied on their top unit to do the damage in game 4. Once again the Swedish crew delivered, once again they did so in the third period.

Down 2-1, Mike Zibanejad was instrumental, as has his overall playoff performance been, in turning the game into the Jaguars favor.

At 4:51 "Z", and Landeskog combined perfectly on the power play to tie the game at two. And after Rickard Rakell completed the comeback, it was tic-tac-toe again with Zibanjead the beneficiary of a beautiful cross ice pass from Landeskog to put the Jaguars in safe harbour.

Sean Monahan scored a late consolation goal which cut the deficit back to one, but the goal will only stand as the final goal scored in the 2019-20 UHL season.

After the ceremonial handshakes, the Slapshots team returned to the locker room heads down whilst on ice celebration continued.

It didn't take long for GM Wagner to address the locker room atmosphere to the media:

"It was really tough to come so close and not be able to complete the run for the Cup.  Most guys know how hard it is to get to that point.  After a bit of reflection though I'm sure we will all realize overall it was a great season," he spoke realistically.

In his first season in charge, Wagner has been an instant hit in Gander and one begs to question what the future will have in store for the team next season.

"Overall this season went really well for this rookie GM.  We made a lot of trades that ended up working out and getting to the Finals is always an accomplishment.  Free agency will be interesting to see how the team shapes up for next season.  Our deals purposefully left us with some financial flexibility, so we should be able to target a star free agent if one is available and still have a lot of depth on the team."

No shortage of enthusiasm on the other side of the rink, where GM Mike D'Ambrosio was speaking to the media carrying a large Cuban cigar.

"I'm not surprised we did well as I thought we had one of the top teams, but it was definitely unexpected to go 16-2. I don't think you can even expect things to go that well. The team had a great second half and we just seemed to keep getting better as the season went on so it was awesome to see things click at the right time,"he knew.

Asked about which players he'd like to give a shoutout to he named two usual suspects.

"Of course Lehner put together a stellar playoffs posting 16-2 .950 SV% 1.50 GAA. Next I have to say Zibanejad. He missed a few games to injury early in the playoffs and came back on another level. Wound up posting 10-9-19 and +12 with a 22.22 SHT %." But the GM was also quick to add a third Swedish name to the list who was more of an unsung hero but nevertheless a key component.

"I'd also like to give special mention to Alex Edler who anchored our D all season long. He didn't put up a ton of points (1-3-4) but skated to a +10 playing on the top pairing in all situations"

Asked about what the team needs to bring sustained success to the Jaguars organization, D'Ambrosio initially refused to answer citing he'd want to celebrate first and not focus on next season. However later on, the GM did give a bit of a hint what's in store this off-season for the Jags fans.

"We definitely think the Jaguars will continue to put a strong team on the ice. We've made some short term moves this year for sure, but we've made some moves that will help us next year and beyond as well. I'm not afraid to shake things up if it makes sense for the team and I've already got the gears starting to spin on some off season moves that I may want to make which could include some bigger names. Don't be surprised if you see some moves happen leading up to the draft!"

With that the 2019-20 UHL season is officialy behind us and all teams will be preparing for the upcoming UHL Entry Draft as well another frantic UFA period led by a fantastic UHL management organization who have revived the league in a fantastic way.

The Jaguars have been predators all season but will know everyone will start off equal next year and the predator will become the prey themselves. 

The Hamilton Hunt is now officially openend.

 


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UHL Playoff Reviewed - Conference Finals

Hamilton Jaguars - Ottawa Grinders 4-0

Grinders limited to just 4 goals, as Jaguars secure UHL final spot after sweep.

The Jaguars continue to be relentless.

After having, after having just lost two games in the post-season, the Jags didn't leave much room for debate sending the Ottawa Grinders home with a 4-0 series loss.

In a tale of two GM's doing their homework, it was Jaguars' GM D'Ambrosio who came out as the better student.

Realizing his team had to avoid getting into a physical battle with the gritty Grinders, the Jaguars were not to be intimidated and let the offense do the trash talking for them.

Jaguarsr GM Mike D'Ambrosio pointed out the strength of his team's offense. "Our top line had a great series (Landeskog - 1G 5A 6P +5 vs OTT; Zibanejad - 4G 3A 7P +7 vs OTT; Brown - 1G 3A 4P +5 aganinst Ottawa)."

Facing a bloated offensive line-up the Grinders knew they had soldify their defense to make the series competitive. GM Davies' gameplan was played to perfection until a short lapse of concentration a few seconds into the third period of game 1 led to veteran Jussi Jokinen leave Lundqvist helpless to open the scoring.

A trademark Shea Weber blast from the blueline made the Grinder's job even more challenging.

Outshot in each period, the Grinders did pull one goal back but the Jaguars never looked like losing game 1.

It forced the Grinders to slightly alter their game plan in game2 where the team came out more offensively illustrated by 36 shots on the net of Robin Lehner. Unfortunately for them, the Swedish netminder continued to show his excellent form this playoffs and stopped 35 of them.

The Jaguars blinked, but not stumbled. They were lethal with the scoring chances offered to them as the Grinders opened up their game and took a commanding three goal lead before Nick Schmaltz could save the honours for the Grinders.

Both GM's knew goaltending was going to be one of the keys in this match-up.

"The two things the Grinders were concerned about heading into the series versus the Jaguars were (a) trying to contain the Jags terrific group of top six forwards, and (b) goaltending, GM Davies knew.  "While the shots and shot attempts favoured the Grinders in 2 of the 4 games, goaltending in the series was the ultimate difference. Robin Lehner was terrific in every game, whereas Henrik Lundqvist regressed as compared to how he played versus the Knights and Hitmen."

His counterpart agreed.

D'Ambrosio: "Lehner is playing maybe the best hockey of his career and you can see Lundqvist has lost a step or two. He (Lehner) has been an a brick wall all through the post season (12-2 0.949 SV% 1.57 GAA) and somehow he's raised his game against Ottawa (4-0 0.966% SV 1.00 GAA). This is why we signed him last season. He knows this is his moment and he's really come through"

Boosted by a comfortable 2-0 series lead, the Jaguars gave the Grinders a lesson in efficiency.

Six different goal scorers tore apart the Grinders in a 6-1 rout to put the Jaguars in pole position to win the Canadian Conference.

Nearly running out of gas, the Grinders gave it one last push in game 4 and played a solid game for 40 minutes but once again were not able to make their scoring chances count as Lehner came up huge one again.

Their gritty playing style this playoffs has taken its toll, as the Jaguars wore down their prey before delivering the killer blow in the final period. Mike Zibanejad scored twice in a wild final period in which the Jaguars outshot their opponents 27-14 to win the game 3-1 and sweep the series.

Following the series loss, Davies was honest in his response to the media. "The Grinders are disappointed that we didn't give Mike and his powerful Jaguars team a better series, he reflected back on the series.  "That being said, I'm proud of how the team competed and won two series versus the Knights and Hitmen as underdogs. The Grinders have accumulated some nice young players and are thus optimistic moving forward."

Asked about what the future in Ottawa looks like, Davies shared a view on his crystal ball

"I think overall the Grinders had a pretty positive season. The team struggled early in the year with consistency, with a terrible penalty kill and production from its bottom 6 forwards, hence many trades were made to try to address those issues. The team played better in the 2nd half and made a good run in the playoffs, Additionally, the Grinders farm team has qualified for the finals with many young players leading the charge (e.g. Logan Brown, Victor Olofsson) so the future is bright in Ottawa!"

Meanwhile The Jaguars are not done yet and have silverware on their radar.

"I am not surprised with the dominance our team is showing. but am really happy to see the team reaching their full potential at the right time,"D'Ambrosio said. "To be honest I was a bit worried about the Grinders match up with their great lineup and some of the additions they made at the deadline. I'm excited to see the team playing this way and if we can stick to our game plan I think we've got a great shot in the final."

Asked about his outlook for the series against the Slapshots, the Jags GM will be doing his homework again.  "It will be another very tough challenge. Another great goaltender in Rinne who is playing at a very high level behind a very skilled and balanced team. We can't afford to take any shifts off against them or their skill guys will make you pay. If we stick to our game plan and execute, I think we will be very tough to beat. Should be a fantastic final."

Gander Slapshots - Tumba Wolves 4-2

Slapshots almost blow 3-game series lead, win game 6 to clinch UHL final spot.

The people of Gander who had already postponed their summer holidays can do so once more. Or perhaps they could consider booking a trip up north as the Slapshots have defied the odds and set themselves up for an UHL Finals series against the Hamilton Jaguars.

Going into the series, Slapshots GM Wagner knew his team were the underdogs against the high flying, smooth skating Wolves. The keys to success were "containing their offense and stay out of the box." The plans weren't executed to perfection but sufficient to cage the Wolves and send them back to Tumba empty handed.

Having mastered the art of winning one-goal games in the semi final series against the Trappers, the Slapshots won the first game in the series by a score of 2-1. A result that still has the Wolves staff fuming as they felt the game winning goal by Brock Nelson should not have counted as the net got loose. After a 5 minute video review, referee Steve Kozari called the goal and with that set the tone of the series.

Having yet to face adversity this playoffs, the Wolves now had to restore orders in game 2 at home, but found themselves 3-1 behind after two periods of play. Goals by Michael Grabner and Nick Foligno did bring the scoring in the final period, but the Wolves, who had restored the two-goal lead midway the third period, snatched the win thanks to an empty net goal by Jacob Silfverberg to take a 2-0 lead back to Gander.

Back on familiar territory, the Slapshots executed their traditional game plan of keeping games close and strike late.

After both teams exchanged goals in the first period, it took a Mikael Backlund third period goal to seal the deal in 2-1 victory giving the Slapshots a royal 3-0 lead in the series.

Perhaps the cushion was just a bit too much comfort to enjoy.

Boosted by a 2-0 first period lead, the Slapshots' intense game slowed down a notch and the Wolves took full advantage. After Anthony Cirelli cut back the deficit, the Wolves struck twice within 6 seconds early in the final period to take a 3-2 victory and record their first win in the series.

The Wolves smelled blood and were hungry and the Slapshots were hurt meat going back to Tumba.

Outshooting the Slapshots 39-30, the Wolves struck four goals, as their offense finally seemed to click and Carey Price standing tall in net.

The comfortable 3-0 series lead was now reduced to just a single game and the Slapshots needed to regain their intensity level they had showed previously this series.

Surprisingly, it wasn't a coaches' speech or motivational speaker that was brought in, but GM Wagner decided to give his team a day off in preparation to game 6 and sent the players and family to a local mall.

Studies of the effect still have to be conducted, but the Slapshots looked reborn when stepping on the ice for game 6.

Sean Monahan and Brendan Gallagher scored early in the first periods, and the Slapshots never looked back. Things went from bad to worse for the Wolves when Mike Green scored his first playoff goal in the second period and facing elimination there believe was no longer there.

Oscar Klefbom ruined Pekka Rinne's shutout bid with a third period goal, but the Finnish netminder would not be bothered too much and will look forward to a clash with his Swedish counterpart, Robin Lehner, in the UHL Finals.

After the on-ice celebrations were concluded, a Champagne soaked GM Wagner showed his face to the media. "There is currently lots of excitement in the locker room with the chance to win a cup.  Most guys realize these chances don’t come around often. And to be honest a little relief because game 6 in the semis felt like a must win against a good Wolves team,"he said trying to keep his composure.

Wagner was full of praise of his netminder who came up huge for his team against the Wolves.  "We lost our best two dmen but Pekka Rinne put the team on his back. He really was the main key to victory for us."

Wagner is hopeful the Finnish netminder can continue his strong play and already made it clear his team are going into the finals as underdogs, putting the pressure on the Jaguars. 

"On paper the Jaguars certainly seem to be the better team. They are certainly the favorites. But we are going to play a physical game and try to slow down their skill some and if Rinne keeps playing well we will always have a chance"

Holiday isn't over yet!


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Grinders season in review

Grinders long-time GM Scott Davies held court with the Ottawa media on Friday, as bag day hit the Grinders dressing room a bit earlier than hoped.

"I'm very proud of our team - we made a great run during these playoffs. We were able to take out two great teams in the Knights and Hitmen" Davies said, "But at the end of the day, we ran out of gas versus a juggernaut of a team in the Hamilton Jaguars. My congratulations go out to Mike and his impressive team. They have a great shot at winning a Cup and we wish them luck."

The regular season was admittedly a roller coaster for the Grinders. Despite outstanding play from team leaders Bo Horvat, Jakub Voracek and Kris Letang, the team was mired in inconsistency throughout the season. "We just weren't getting any production from our bottom 6 forwards, our penalty killing was awful and our goaltending just wasn't good enough" Davies said. The Grinders GM made several in-season trades to try to bolster his roster, including bringing in stud centre Evgeni Malkin, big Zdeno Chara, Josh Manson, Zack Smith & Artem Anisimov...but it wasn't quite enough for the team to achieve its ultimate goal of a 3rd Cup for this proud franchise. 

Ottawa Senators Thomas Chabot

The Grinders will have a different looking roster next season, with pending star UFA's Malkin & Letang about to hit the market. While Davies hopes to bring one or both players back, the price would be steep. Key restricted free agents Horvat and Thomas Chabot will certainly be re-signed and be a big part of the Grinders core going forward. Despite giving up some future assets this season, Davies is relatively happy with the prospect base he's built up in recent years. "I think we're in pretty good shape moving forward" Davies said. "Our farm team the Nepean Senators are in the Conference Finals, and much of our success is because of the growth of young players like Victor Olofsson, Logan Brown, Taro Hirose and Ben Jones" Davies proudly stated. Of course, much of the teams success also falls to team MVP goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who was a monster all season.

Entering into the offseason (where the Grinders currently have 10 picks in the 2020 UHL Draft, including its 1st and 2nd rounders), here are the Grinders top 15 prospects:

Forwards: Kristian Vesalainen, Logan Brown, Rasmus Kupari, Egor Afanasyev, Michal Teply, Nikita Alexandrov, Logan Hutsko, John Leonard, Patrick Moynihan

Defensemen: Thomas Harley, Ian Mitchell, Calen Addison, Scott Perunovich, Declan Chisholm, Sean Durzi 


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UHL Playoff Reviewed - Semi Finals World Conference

Tumba Wolves - Stuttgart Bison 4-2

The Wolves keep on cruising in the World Conference playoffs. After a smooth first round victory over the Chicago Crusaders, they disposed themselves of the Stuttgart Bison in 6 games.

Starting off in front of their home crowd, the Wolves needed to overcome adversity to claim game 1 thanks to late third period goals by Magnus Paajarvi and Oscar Klefbom to overcome a 2-1 deficit.

Also in game 2, it took patience for the Wolves fans before they could notch the “W”. Despite peppering Connor Hellebuyck with 37 shots, it took over 35 minutes of play before the spell was broken.

First Alexander Barkov broke free on the right hand side before sliding a nifty puck through Hellebuyck’s legs before Viktor Arvidsson earned his team the lead just over a minute later.

Barkov tallied a power play insurance goal for the 3-1 victory.

More of the same in game three, where the Bison took a first period lead after hard work from Brock McGinn in front of the net paid off, but the Wolves responded with three unanswered goals themselves, all with Alexander Barkov being the beneficiary.

The Finnish forward’s hattrick meant he took his goal scoring tally to seven this post season and made him one of the front runners for the Playoff MVP title this year.

Facing a sweep elimination in game 4, the Bison got what they deserved. A much more balanced game in Stuttgart saw the Bison being far more efficient with their opportunities resulting in a 4-2 win.

The series was extended to game 6 after a third period Daniel Sprong goal was the tie breaker in another even match up between both sides.

Eventually the Bison ran out of gas, giving the Wolves ample opportunity to take advantage of their roster depth.

Despite trailing 2-0 after the first period, the Wolves marched on to a 5-3 victory outshooting their opponents 40-20.

Michael Grabner scored twice including an empty netter and Barkov added to his overall point totals (15) with an assist.

The Wolves will now face the Gander Slapshots in the World Conference finals.

Wolves GM Zac Ryan continued to be unavailable to the media leaving a packed press room scratching their heads in search for quotes.

 

Gander Slapshots - Tilburg Trappers 4-2

The Gander Slapshots advanced to the World Conference finals after a close rollercoaster series against the Tilburg Trappers.

All six games in the series were decided by a single goal margin, justifying the even odds provided by the bookmakers ahead of this series.

Slapshots GM Wagner: “It could not have been a closer series. All were one goal games and three went to overtime. Literally either team could have easily won any of the games. The Trappers are a great team and we were fortunate to have advanced”, Wagner gave credit to Tilburg.

The Trappers came out strongest in this series.

Having eliminated the Mulheim Mustangs, their confidence was sky high and the momentum carried on as the Trappers stole two away victories to take a comfortable 2-0 series lead.

It wasn’t over and out for the Slapshots though who clawed their way back in the series with a pair of away victories themselves.

First period goals by Travis Konecny and Jay Beagle proved enough cushion to hang on to a 2-1 victory in game 3 while Cedric Paquette’s first post season goal in overtime meant the series was tied at 2 again.

Having seen two overtimes already, the fans were offered value for money as also game 5 went to overtime and like in game 4, the Slapshots bench could celebrate.

After a barrage of Trappers attempts at the net of Pekka Rinne, it was Jakob Silfverberg who struck through traffic sidefooting Jordan Binnington.

The overtime loss in game 5, seemed to have demoralized the Trappers.

The Tilburg-based team looked sluggish in game 6 and found themselves 3-0 behind after the first period and needed something special to extend the series.

Trappers coach Bill Peters was fuming in the locker room and he sent a clear message, sending his team back to the ice after just 5 minutes.

What followed was a much different Trappers team for the next 40 minutes. Radek Faksa cut the deficit to two as Tilburg set themselves up for a fanatic third period of power hockey.

Things looked promising when Brendan Gallagher was sent to the box for Cross Checking but playing with five forwards on the man advantage includes accepting the risks that come with it and Brandon Sutter made the Trappers pay with a short handed goal at 08:23.

In Do-or-Die fashion, the Trappers fought for their last chance and they came close to realizing the comeback. Patrick Maroon struck a deuce to make it 4-3 with32 seconds remaining on the clock. It wasn’t to be as the series was concluded the same way it had gone throughout all games: wins by a single goal-margin.

Trappers GM Loonen was visibly disappointed by his team’s post season exit but was able to reflect on a remarkable season later on when meeting with the press.

“Had you said we’d be in the World Conference semi finals at the start of the season, I’d have had you administered in a mental place,” he joked. “We had planned for a couple of rebuilding years aiming to get some high end draft picks to help building our new core. This plan was supported by dealing away some key players during the season in return for prospects and picks. I must give credit to the team who really gelled and made the impossible possible going on a great Cup run in the end.”

The Slapshots will continue their hunt for silverware with a series against favourites Tumba Wolves. Not an easy task for anyone who has seen the Wolves play this season.

“The Wolves have a lot of high end talent. We'll need to contain them and stay out of the box to survive,” knows Wagner.

“When I took over as GM early in the season, our team was in the 7th or 8th playoff position. At that point the season could have really gone either direction and I so I sat tight for a little bit evaluating the team,” he explains. “We have made a few trades to get some guys we liked and the guys responded and went on a hot streak. That convinced management to allow us to trade away some picks and prospects to go for it and see what might happen moving forward.”


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UHL Playoff Reviewed - Semi Finals Canadian Conference

Hamilton Jaguars - Lethbridge Mavericks 4-2

After having swept the Copper Cliff Braves, the Hamitlon Jaguars continued showing their teeth. This time second seeded Lethbridge Mavericks fell victim to the Jaguars prey for success.

Mavericks had a great year, I think they led their division pretty much from start to finish so I knew it would be a tough series, "GM Mike D'Ambrosio commented afterward. "I am really proud of the team effort. We had a couple of key injuries early in the series (Zibanejad, Weber, Jokinen) and the rest of the guys picked them up. Everyone is chipping in up and down the roster and that's what it's gonna take to keep putting W's on the board."

Playing away from home, the Jaguars showed no signs of rusty legs coming off a number of non-playing games. Playing away from home, the Jags came out the cage ready to bite and the team took a commanding 2-0 series lead winning both away games.

In game 1, a first period Brandon Saad goal was erased by three unanswered goals in the final two periods. Robin Lehner stood tall in net once again stopping 28 shots while the Jags outshot their opponents 37-29. 

Lehner's goaltending was highlighted as one of the keys to success by GM D'Ambrosio earlier and the Swedish netminder made sure not to disappoint with another stellar performance in game two posting a ridiculous .978 save percentage worthy enough of the game's first star. It was not the only Swede to impress for the Jaguars as Gabriel Landeskog struck twice, including the game winner deep into the first overtime in a 2-1 victory.

" Lehner continues to stand on his head night after night and has probably been the biggest difference maker," D'Ambrosio said in honour of his netminders performance.

A 3-2 victory in Hamilton seemed to bring the spark back for the Mavericks but it was shortlived as the Jaguars rebounded with a convicing 5-1 victory in game 4  in which both Landeskog and Lehner came up big again.

With the series for grabs, the Jaguars had to postpone festivities as Lethbridge scored four unanswered goals en route to a 4-2 victory in game 5 but eventually had to admit defeat in game 6 where Swedish combination of Landeskog, Zibanejad and Lehner were instrumental in the win that sealed a ticket to the Canadian Conference final.

The duo of Landeskog and Zibanejad have combined for a whopping 18 points so far this post season and Lehner remains on top of the goaltender leaderboard with a save% of .944 so far.

A tough task for the Ottawa Grinders to find a way to stop the Jags Super Swedes.

The Jaguars already have done their homework ahead of the Conference Final. "Grinders also have been strong all year and made some key moves at the deadline that make them really dangerous," knew D'Ambrosio. "They knocked out the Hitmen so you know they are dangerous and playing at a high level with a lot of physicality. We've got to stick to our game plan, continue to stay out of the box and look for contributions down to the last man. Of course goaltending will be a huge factor."

Asked about the strength of the Canadian Conference in comparison with the World Conference, D'Ambrosio was cautious to label themselves as favourites at this stage.

"I don't know about that. All of these teams are playing at an extremely high level. Tumba and Gander both have a lot of skilled and disciplined players along with two of the top goaltenders in the league. Should be a great series between them. For now we've got to focus on the Grinders and if we're lucky we'll get to worry about one of those teams."

Ottawa Grinders - Toronto Hitmen 4-2

Fifth seeded Ottawa Grinders continue to surprise media and fans and to a certain extent also their own GM.

"I'm quite surprised with how the Grinders have performed so far in these playoffs," said a jubilant Grinders' GM Scott Davies ."The production of our 3rd line (Marleau-Smith-Anisimov) has far and away exceeded the expected production. All three players are near the top of +/- in the playoffs so far, which has been a shocking development so far."

After a character victory over the Mississauga Knights, Ottawa find themeselves in the Canadian Conference finals after a convincing 4-2 series victory over the Conference top seed Toronto Hitmen.

"All the games versus the top seeded Hitmen were close and I think the Grinders were a bit lucky to squeak out the series. Remember - the Grinders were down 3 games to 2 in the first round, with Game 6 decided in overtime, so beating the mighty Hitmen in 6 games was very surprising," he admits. "Michael has been a great GM with the Hitmen for many, many seasons and I respect his abilities to put together great teams very much."

Both teams exchanged victories in the first two games of the series, before Ottawa took full advantage of playing in front of a frantic home crowd to couple of 4-2 victories to take a comfortable series lead.

In game three the team was trailing with just over 6 minutes left to play but three goals in 150 seconds of play turned the game around in the Grinders' favour.

The Grinders' resiliency showed again in game 4, where they managed to make the difference in the final period. With the score tied at 1 after two periods of play, Gustav Nyquist released a quick wrister to put his team in the lead at 7:26 in the third period. Their lead was extended when good-old Patrick Marleau showed playoff experience still matters. His might have lost in speed but his smartness allowed him to be in the right position to bury home a loose puck with less than seven minutes left to play. A late Connor Garland goal was mere consolation with less than a minute left to play int he game. Searching for a late equaliser, the Grinders had a 3-on-1 situation which was played to perfection to dash any hopes of a late comeback.

Four unanswerd goals in game 5 earned the Hitmen an extended lifeline but the Grinders were destined to clinch the series at home ice in game 6.

Artem Anisimiov, Nick Schmaltz and Zack Smith scored first period goals forcing the Hitmen to play catchup hockey all game long. Despite 25 shots on goals in the final two periods, only Anze Kopitar was able to find a way past Henrik Lundqvist who seemed rejuvenated in the series and now can look forward to an All-Swedish goaltender battle in the World Conference Final.

"Henrik has raised his game to date in the playoffs more than I expected. His regular season performance was below average so I'm pleasantly surprised with how well he's played so far," Davies said in anticipation of the game against Jaguars' Robin Lehner.

Despite Lundqvist's great post season performance, Davies is aware of the battle he and his team can expect when facing the Jaguars.

"Mike always puts great Jaguar teams into the playoffs, and I expect it will be a very tough matchup for the Grinders. The amount of skill his team has up front (Zibanejad, Duchene, Landeskog, Gaudreau etc...) is really impressive."

Asked about how he expects to stop the Jaguars, Davies was surprisingly frank. "I think for the Grinders to have a chance in this series, the Horvat-Voracek combo has to improve its production compared to the first 2 rounds...and I think that defensively we will have to try to slow down the Jaguars firepower by slowing the pace and limiting the numbers of shots on goal. Henrik Lundqvist also has to continue his recent excellent play in nets and match Robin Lehner shot for shot."


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