When all’s said and done, the 2017 Erie Otters Memorial Cup run might go down as an absolute clobbering. The OHL champions beat the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs 12-5 on Monday to improve to 2-0 at the tournament. It was a complete blowout, with Erie setting a Mem Cup record for goals scored in a game. Check it out.
To the casual observer, the Otters look like a team that’s waltzing its way to Canada’s premier junior hockey championship. In reality, dominance on this level has been years in the making.
Junior hockey pundits have picked Erie as a contender in the OHL for four years in a row, dating back to Connor McDavid‘s time as their captain. The Otters’ lineup has been stacked even without McDavid, featuring such OHL stars as Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat, and Taylor Raddysh.
Geography isn’t kind to Erie, though, as the Pennsylvania team finds themselves stuck in a division with the powerhouse London Knights and Windsor Spitfires. No matter how good they are in the regular season, the Otters must always go through their heavyweight Midwest Division rivals. This year, the OHL’s top five teams were all in the Western Conference, making the road to the final tougher than the final itself.
Year after year, Erie have found themselves heartbroken in May. In 2014, the Guelph Storm knocked them out of the Conference Final in five games. The 2015 Oshawa Generals silenced McDavid to win the OHL Final in five. Perhaps most bitingly, the hated London Knights swept Erie in the 2016 Conference Final, dominating a series that should’ve been a smackdown for the ages.
Three straight 50-win seasons ended with a whimper, as one of the most dominant regular season teams in Canada repeatedly collapsed in the playoffs. Strome in particular was dejected after last year’s Game 4 defeat to London, struggling to hide the tears as he came out for the post-game press conference.
“Our third go-round in the conference finals, it feels a lot like the first year ,” he said last season.
Knights and Otters shake hands pic.twitter.com/Olh0LaVqCz
— Charlie Clarke (@charliejclarke) April 28, 2016
The disappointment has probably weighed most heavily on Strome. Not only has the Otters captain seen three crushing OHL defeats, he’s also shouldered much of the criticism for Canada’s past two performances at the World Juniors. That’s a tournament where an entire country can be extremely cruel to a group of teenagers for falling anywhere short of gold.
Strome has even fallen out of favour with Arizona Coyotes fans, who saw Mitch Marner‘s success this year with the Toronto Maple Leafs and wondered if their team had made a mistake picking him third overall.
Then there’s Alex DeBrincat, who’s never scored less than 100 points in an OHL season. He had 65 goals and 127 points this year to lead the league, but the prevailing narrative about him has still always been his 5’7″ stature. DeBrincat was passed over for the U.S. World Juniors team this year despite leading the OHL in points. He’s finally getting his due, winning the 2017 Red Tilson Trophy as league MVP.
The Otters seem to finally be on their way to a happy ending in 2017. They exorcised a lot of demons in the second round of the OHL playoffs, beating London in Game 7 in overtime. It’s actually been pretty smooth sailing for them ever since, beating the Owen Sound Attack in six and the Mississauga Steelheads in five to qualify for the second Memorial Cup in franchise history.
Now, they’re playing on the stage they’ve deserved for years, and they fit in so well. Strome set a tournament record for individual points in a game with seven (four goals, three assists). Raddysh had six. DeBrincat had four (and two in Saturday’s win over the Seattle Thunderbirds).
The Otters will square off with Windsor on Wednesday for an automatic berth in the Memorial Cup final. Erie saw the Spitfires plenty of times this year, splitting the season series 2-2. Should they win, Strome, DeBrincat, and the Otters will be one step closer to a redemption that would make all the years of heartbreak worth it.
With how good the Otters have been for years, no team in Canada deserves to be at this year’s Memorial Cup than they do.