Guelph Storm captain Isaac Ratcliffe had almost nothing to play for in his first three years in the Ontario Hockey League.
The 6-foot-6 204-pound winger missed the playoffs in his first two seasons and bowed out in the first round last year in six games as the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
So he had plenty of reason to smile when management showed him the Storm were all in on chasing a championship this season – with general manager/coach George Burnett shipping out three skaters and 20 draft picks in five separate trade-deadline deals to acquire a trio of Canadian junior national team members and a pair of veteran defencemen.
“It’s been nice to get a taste of what it’s like to win,” the 20-year-old Philadelphia Flyers prospect said.
“Coming into the OHL, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. First year (2015-16) we won 13 games, second year didn’t make too much of an improvement. But we knew this was going to be our year. Management has stuck by us.”
The deals have paid off for Burnett as the Storm will meet the host Ottawa 67’s on Thursday for Game 1 of the best-of-seven series for the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
Getting there wasn’t easy for the Storm, who finished fourth in the West and had to knock off the top two teams in the conference after digging themselves big holes against both.
After sweeping the Kitchener Rangers in Round 1, Guelph was down 3-0 against the top-seeded London Knights in the second round, but found a way to pull off four straight wins and the upset. Then, the Storm fell behind 3-1 in the West final against the Saginaw Spirit, only to surge back and take the series with another Game 7 victory on the road.
Ratcliffe scored in five straight games between Game 6 of the London series and Game 3 against Saginaw.
Meanwhile, the 67’s – the No. 1-ranked team in the OHL – cruised through the Eastern Conference. They swept the Hamilton Bulldogs, Sudbury Wolves and Oshawa Generals and enter the final on a 12-game win streak, outscoring their opponents 67-29 along the way. No team has ever gone 16-0 to win a league championship in Canadian major junior hockey.
“Pretty crazy series to go down like we did and need Game 7 again,” said Ratcliffe, who has 21 points in 18 playoff games. “We hope we can bring that to the next series against a strong Ottawa team.”
Burnett’s biggest acquisition at the deadline was forward Nick Suzuki, a Montreal Canadiens prospect who leads all skaters in the postseason with 13 goals and 31 points in 18 games.
The 19-year-old enters the final on a 12-game point streak and made some noise in a Game 6 win over Saginaw when he scored a spin-o-rama goal that was highlight worthy.
“We know they’re a really good team and you don’t come back against good teams like London and Saginaw without being a good team,” said Ottawa coach André Tourigny, who was named OHL coach of the year. “We respect them a ton. We have to bring our A game.”
Saginaw head coach Chris Lazary saw enough of the Storm to believe they can take down the 67’s.
“On paper, that’s the best team in the league,” he said. “They’re a tough out, I fully expect them to win the championship.”
Ottawa was the only OHL squad to win 50 games in the regular season and has Canadian junior team goaltender Michael DiPietro holding down the fort. The Vancouver Canucks prospect won a Memorial Cup with the host Windsor Spitfires in 2017, but has never won a league title.
Guelph last won an OHL title in 2014, while Ottawa’s most recent one came back in 2001.
The teams are playing for a spot in the Memorial Cup, which begins May 17 in Halifax.