At the top of his game
As Stephen Dhillon goes, so go the Niagara IceDogs.
The 19-year-old netminder is playing perhaps as well as he ever has at the Ontario Hockey League level and is a big reason the IceDogs have been able to make a legitimate run at first place in the Central Division.
“We had a hot start and then had a little drop off but the boys are back,” said Dhillon, who has a 15-5-2-2 record thus far. “It’s great. We’re all playing at the highest level we’ve played at all year which is very exciting.”
Dhillon is quick to give credit to his teammates who have done a much better job of helping this season after Dhillon was deluged with more than 2,000 shots last year.
“They do a great job clearing rebounds, blocking shots, making my job very easy,” Dhillon said.
Dhillon’s other numbers — a goals-against average of 2.75 and a save percentage to .910 — are also outstanding.
“He’s looking like he’s the best goalie in the league. We’re biased but I think anyone would say he’s in the top three for sure,” IceDogs coach Billy Burke said.
Burke said the play of back-up netminder Colton Incze has also been a factor.
“I think it’s great Colton is playing as well as he is because Colton is pushing Stevie and they are pushing each other.
“If you don’t have goaltending in hockey you’re finished. They are making us look good and the guys are playing hard for them and they’re playing hard for the guys.”
The IceDogs have won seven of their last eight games to improve to 16-9-3-2 and are tied with the Barrie Colts for first place.
The IceDogs host North Bay Friday and the Colts Saturday in their final two games before the Christmas break. The IceDogs are then off until Thursday, Dec. 28 when they travel to North Bay.
“We’re heating up at the right time,” Dhillon said. “There’s still a ton of season left so we can’t get too ahead of ourselves. To be on the winning streak heading into Christmas gives everyone so much confidence.”
Burke has mixed feelings about the break coming with the club playing so well.
“We’re on such a roll right now it’s too bad we have to take a break for Christmas,” Burke said. “Hopefully we can continue to play well this weekend so over our week off we have that feeling and hopefully pick up where we left off.
“It’s a new weekend and new challenge and new opportunities. What we’ve done in the past month is great for the standings but it doesn’t really mean much.”
Looking back on what turned things around, Burke pointed to a win in North Bay Nov. 12 following a bad loss in Barrie the night before.
“Barrie was our rock bottom game but we had a long meeting the next morning and came back with an attitude and played physical and were able to to a complete 180 from the night before,” Burke said. “We went through some adversity which every team is going to face at some point.”
Burke said what he’s proud the players were accountable during the slump.
“It hit us but we were able to regroup and learn why we weren’t winning and struggling and the guys were able to identify it and fix it,” he said. “We can show them why we weren’t having success and being easy to play against but we backed it up with some good video to show the guys. They are proud athletes and they don’t like looking like that on video.
“It’s not us having us to crack the whip every day because the guys are finding it within themselves.”