It’s time for the Ontario finals.
The first two rounds of the playoffs were arguably the best in recent memory, with both semi-final series going to five games, and huge crowds filling arenas across the province.
Congratulations to both the Toronto Beaches and the Whitby Warriors, who will both represent the OJLL and Ontario at the Minto Cup later this month. Before that however, we must determine an Ontario champion. The winner of this series will grab hold of the Iroqouis trophy, and grab incredible momentum before the National Championship at the end of the summer.
With game one being played tonight in Pickering, I wanted to preview the series with five important questions that will define this series. Let’s get into it.
This one is obvious, but I think it is actually more important for Beaches. Whitby puts pressure on teams in a lot of different ways, and with a lot of different players, but it starts with Brock Haley. Haley, like all other great goal-scorers, shoots it a lot. Whitby generates pretty good but far out looks at will (more on that below). If Whitby can score outside the dotted lines, Beaches will be in a grind.
Will Johnston has been great for Beaches all season, and he will need to be in this series. Simply put, if Haley gets going from outside, things are going to be tough. Chris Origlieri and Zach Richards from Orangeville did an effective job at forcing Haley at least to get to the goal. They were especially good with the stick saves in the five-hole, which Haley looks for with his underhand release. Haley will still get his in this series, but they can’t be from way out. Beaches can’t defend everything and Johnston needs to take that look away.
Meanwhile for Whitby, Kaleb Martin went the distance in game five against the Northmen, and will need to be sharp again. He and Liam Wright split time in the last series. This gives Whitby an insurance plan, but also rocks the boat. Coach Williams and his staff will prefer to have one of their guys dial in for the finals. Martin allowed just four goals in the series clincher to send his team to the Minto. He will need to channel that same effort against a Beaches team that forces goalies to move better than any team in the league.
If there is one notable difference for me between these two teams, its that Whitby likes to attack from the top down, whereas Beaches prefers operating from lower on the half wall. Most of Whitby’s sets start with Haley and Poitras at the top, often looking for each other. The first pick is very often an up pick, where the picker comes from the bottom-up, and sets a pick for the ball carrier to get downhill.
The first option here is for players like Haley and Poitras to get downhill. Haley got a few of these against Orangeville, where he got underneath and got all the way to the goal. An obvious way to counter this for the defence is to drop the second defender (the defender guarding the picker) and keep him back by the dotted line.
What Whitby does better than any other team, is attack these coverages using double pick actions. The ball carrier will come around the up pick, then almost immediately spin around and come back towards the middle. The picker will come back and set a down screen, allowing the ball carrier to come around the top and step into an outside shot, or hit the roll man to the goal.
Here, Adam Poitras comes around a screen set by Gabe Sorichetti. Poitras does not spin here, but premise is the same. He fakes underneath and comes around.
This is a high percentage shot for Poitras (and he maybe could have passed it as well).
This is an interesting clip, because the actual pick is cut off, but it shows the value of the spin picks.
They turn this:
Orangeville was in decent position to start the play, but by manipulating the top defender, Whitby creates a wide open look for Jack Budway.
When the defence plays it differently, Whitby is slick enough to handle the change and attack in different ways.
The most obvious solution to this on defence is ball pressure. If the defender can disrupt the ball carrier and not get picked, the problem gets solved. The other is for the on ball defender to see the pick coming and peel out, while his partner rushes to the ball. Johnston has to be big in these situations, especially when it’s Haley. If Beaches can manage these situations by Whitby, they will have success defensively.
In my opinion, the secret to Beaches’ success is their east-west ball movement. When things are working, Beaches does a great job at running a classic cycle. Their players catch the ball at the top, kick it to the wing or half-wall, and take a man through the middle of the defence.
Willem Firth does a great job in this system. He holds the ball for brief instances, moves it, and gets back to his sweet spot on the left side. One thing this does is open seams through the defence where Beaches can work the ball for quick stick opportunities. Rather than top-down, these passes will often move horizontally right through the middle of offensive zone.
This clip is a good example, Beaches starts the possession in the low corner, carries up, then throws two consecutive passes through the middle of the defence. Firth is always in this spot. He doesn't score here, but coach O'Connor would take his best player with a one on one 6 feet from the goal every time. Whitby has to find a way to make these passes hard.
This is another good example. Simple down pick, then two east west passes. These are more high to low, but this is Beaches offence at work. The ball will move from side to side and back.
For Whitby, the challenge is trying to contain the ball on one side of the floor and not allow swings. When the Warriors had success in their series against Orangeville, they used their age and athleticism on D to pressure the ball and create a lot of one or two pass possessions by Orangeville. Beaches moves the rock at a different level, so it will be more of a challenge.
We might see Whitby try and pressure the top guys who swing the ball, or pack it in and try to not allow the east-west passes through the D. If they can make Beaches a one side at a time team, they will be in good shape. For Beaches, the challenge will be to not force passes when they aren’t there. If they have good shots, they need to take them confidently.
Secondary scoring will be huge for each team. Both have two scorers, a righty and a lefty, who make up the top four in scoring. Poitras, Haley, Anderson and Firth all have 35 points or more. The next closest player on EITHER team has 25 points (Parker Pipher). The reality of shutting down one of the big four is unlikely, they will score.
The bigger question is who else is going to step up. Parker Pipher is a strong candidate, as is Matt Collison from Beaches, those guys could break out.
But my eye looks to a guy like Lucas Littlejohn, who may be the most important player in this series besides the goaltenders. He scored six goals in the final three games of the Orangeville series playing both offence and defence. His confidence level seemed to go through the roof with his shots going in, and he gave Whitby a jolt of scoring that they needed to get over Chris Origlieri and the Northmen.
Beaches likes to get out in transition with more than one or two guys, often flying three or more up the floor. These situations will be crucial against a Whitby team that struggled with transition defence against Orangeville. Can Beaches back end contribute a couple goals per game?
Plain and simple, Whitby has to win on the road. For the first time, they are not the higher seed, and holding down home floor will not be enough.
The Warriors lost both road games against Orangeville, and went an even 5-5 on the road during the regular season. Now, given the odd circumstances of this series, Beaches will be playing out of Pickering. Most of the Warriors players will have a shorter drive than their opponents despite it technically being a road game.
Winning in the playoffs on the road is the hardest thing to do as a team. Whitby must find a way. If you’re beaches, the message is simple.
Defend home floor, and your names are on the Iroqouis trophy forever.
Even in a home Minto year, winning Ontario is arguably the hardest thing to do in this sport. Both will go to the Minto, but only one team will stamp their names into the record books.
It’s time for the Ontario finals.