Isaac Ratcliffe and the Guelph Storm have been through so much over the last six weeks that a 2-0 deficit after 20 minutes wasn’t about to faze them.
That resiliency is a big reason they’re now headed to the Memorial Cup.
Ratcliffe scored twice and added two assists in a five-goal second period as the Storm defeated the Ottawa 67’s 8-3 on Sunday to win the Ontario Hockey League final in six games.
“We stayed strong, we stayed humble,” Guelph’s 20-year-old captain said in the middle of chaotic on-ice celebration. “We’ve been there before and we did it again.”
After sweeping the Kitchener Rangers to open the playoffs, Guelph roared back from a 3-0 series deficit to stun the London Knights in the second round. The Storm then fell behind the Saginaw Spirit 3-1 in the OHL’s Western Conference final before winning three straight for another seven-game victory.
Guelph lost the first two against Ottawa, but followed that up with four straight wins, including Friday’s 4-3 victory in the nation’s capital to head home with a 3-2 lead.
“We had a tough start, but we had tough starts in most of the other series,” said Storm centre and OHL playoff scoring leader Nick Suzuki, who had a goal and two assists. “The team never stops working.”
Dmitri Samorukov chipped in with two goals and two assists for Guelph, which last made the Memorial Cup in 2014. Cedric Ralph and Domenico Commisso had a goal and an assist each for the Storm, while Keegan Stevenson rounded out the scoring.
Anthony Popovich finished with 23 saves for Guelph, which will open its Memorial Cup – junior hockey’s four-team national championship – Saturday against the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.
“A very special group of kids,” said Storm head coach George Burnett, who also led Guelph to the Memorial Cup tournament on his first go around with the club in 1998. “When we had bumps in the road they kept things calm, they kept me calm.”
Also the team’s general manager, Burnett made a number of big moves – including acquiring Suzuki and defenceman Sean Durzi from the Owen Sound Attack in January – with an eye toward a long playoff run.
“The way we got here, the road we took … it’s unbelievable,” said Durzi, who finished with two assists.
Noel Hoefenmayer, Kody Clark and Sasha Chmelevski replied for Ottawa, which got 31 stops from Cedrick Andree.
The 67’s opened the playoffs with an OHL-record 14 consecutive wins, but lost four straight as their season came to a screeching halt.
“It’s tough to think about right now,” Chmelevski said. “It’s going to be even worse later on, but very proud of the group we have.
“We’re brothers for life.”
Down 2-0 after the first period, the Storm got going early in the second on a power play when Samorukov blasted home a one-timer.
67’s head coach Andre Tourigny was left seething in the lead-up to the penalty on what he saw as a blown icing call.
“Tough calls will happen in the game,” he said. “That one, for me, was an easy one. For sure I’m sour.
“You don’t lose a series on one call, but that was not a good one.”
Kyle Maksimovich and Tye Felhaber then missed on terrific chances that would have made it 3-1 before Ratcliffe snapped a shot past Andree to tie things at 7:46.
“We played the first 30 minutes really well,” Tourigny said. “We had two Grade-A scoring chances … that was the turning point.”
Ratcliffe gave his team its first lead with 5:17 left in the period on another man advantage when the Philadelphia Flyers draft pick redirected Suzuki’s pass inside an electric Sleeman Centre.
Ralph made it 4-2 just 21 seconds later off a scramble, and Suzuki – named playoff MVP after the Montreal Canadiens prospect registered 42 points in 24 games – took a pass from Ratcliffe to stretch the Storm’s lead to three 53 seconds after that.
Ottawa got one back on a two-man advantage with 1:08 remaining when Chmelevski fired his 12th, but Samorukov scored his 10th at 10:45 of the final period as Guelph’s power play struck for a third time.
Ottawa got a man advantage and pulled Andree to make it 6 on 4, but couldn’t find the range before Commisso found an empty net with 4:25 left and Stevenson rounded out the scoring with 3:23 remaining.
“It wasn’t an 8-3 hockey game,” Burnett said. “We got a few bounces.”
The visitors got a huge break early when Hoefenmayer’s shot from outside Guelph’s blue line fooled Popovich just 2:59 into the first.
The 67’s, who hadn’t dropped three straight games at any point in 2018-19 before the OHL final, doubled that lead at 8:30 moments before a Storm penalty was set to expire when Clark scored as Ottawa briefly looked to be in control.
Ottawa lost No. 1 goalie Michael DiPietro to a high ankle sprain in Game 2, forcing Andree into his first action since the end of March.
Andree finished the series with a save percentage of just .844 and a 5.15 goals-against average. The Ottawa native was solid early in Game 6, but things fell apart in a second period that propelled Guelph to the Memorial Cup.
“We’ll enjoy this for one night,” Burnett said. “We’ve got some work to do.”