By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
The sighs of relief came out as screams of joy.
After dropping the first game of the Eastern Conference final 6-1 to the North Bay Battalion, the Oshawa Generals took Game 2 in overtime to put the series at one game apiece.
A scoreless nail-biter didn’t need much extra time as Dakota Mermis, pinching in from the blue line, picked up a one-timer from Michael McCarron off the back boards and slammed it past Battalion goaltender Jack Smith a little more than a minute into the extra period.
The win snaps a five-game playoff winning streak by North Bay over the Gens that stretches back to the 2014 Eastern Conference final that saw the Battalion sweep the Generals in four games.
Head coach DJ Smith says that sting from last year could have been hanging around on some of his older players.
“Just losing bothers you. Whether you get swept or how you lose, it certainly bothers you,” Smith said. “We’re playing every game to try and push and to win and certainly it’s in the back of their minds, last year, a little bit. But it’s a brand new year, we’ve got a lot of new players here, so it’s a brand new thing for us.”
Animosity between the two big teams, both delivering big hits and aggressive forechecking, would often spill over into scrums after the whistles.
Battalion captain and Whitby native Marcus McIvor says it’s to be expected.
“I think we’re at that point where both teams aren’t fans of each other, so I think the physical play is definitely to be expected,” he said following the Game 2 loss.
Mermis, the OT hero, admitted the game winner was the biggest goal of his career so far, but he doesn’t want to let it get to his head too much.
“For me, it’s just, I’ve been through the playoffs before. You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. So you’ve got to approach it the same way, it’s obviously big tonight, but come tomorrow it’s right back to work and it means nothing if we don’t get three more,” he says.
For Smith, he says his team didn’t start to control the play in Game 2 until the third period.
“I thought we came out a little bit slow in the first. They got to the net on us and again in the second. We were sloppy. I thought we took the game over in the third period. Obviously, our fans helped. We really started to wear their guys down. I thought we had countless chances,” he said.
For a defense-first team, Smith says his club can be comfortable in the low-scoring situations.
“We’re fine with games like this. We’ve just got to keep rolling our lines and keep banging,” he said.
Smith also commended the bounce-back play of goaltender Kenny Appleby who was pulled from the 6-1 loss in Game 1.
“He’s been very good at bouncing back and there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to come out tonight and give us everything he had,” he said.
The series now turns to North Bay and for Mermis, the Game 2 win was all the bigger because of it.
“You can’t let games slide; unfortunately we definitely let Game 1 slide. But as a group, as an older group, we knew tonight would be huge. You don’t want to go down two going into their barn so, obviously, it’s a whole new series now and there’s still a lot of hockey to be played,” he said.
For Smith, the team needs to stick to their aggressive chip-and-chase style to wear down the Battalion.
“We’ve just got to keep playing our game, keep getting pucks behind them and crack them,” he says.
The results of Game 3 on April 28 were not available before The Oshawa Express press deadline.
Game 4 runs the next night in North Bay, with puck drop at 7 p.m.