Photo Credit: Vivid Eye Photography
St. Catharines native Ben Boudreau has been head coach of his hometown Niagara IceDogs for the better part of two months but is as excited and motivated as ever to get back to the basics with his team for an important stretch of games following the Christmas break.
"Coming back after a break it's good both physically and mentally for everyone involved; staff and players alike but we went into the break having won two of our last three games and four of our last eight," said Boudreau.
"That had been our best stretch of the season so far and there was a sense of excitement where you don't want to prologue the break, you want to get back to work right away. The feeling that the group has right now in practice and everything else has been a lot of fun to be a part of with them," he stated.
Niagara won two of three games (three games in three nights) leading into the Christmas break, with wins over top seeded Ottawa and Kingston, before falling in a close 3-2 contest vs Central Division foe North Bay.
MAKE OR BREAK STRETCH
Boudreau talks about what it has been like having almost a full lineup card at his disposal and how the recent results and positive news on the returnee front has helped motivate the group inside the IceDogs locker room.
"Right now, there's an excitement level with this group that hasn't been felt for probably a month and a half or two months so we're happy to get back to work," Boudreau said with a smile on his face.
Niagara will play three cross-conference opponents this week in Owen Sound, Erie, and Guelph but knows that is still important for them to keep up the momentum they had going into the break, if they want to remain competitive within the Eastern Conference playoff hunt with January's OHL trade deadline on the horizon as we approach the New Year.
"We've got three big games ahead of us this week and the trade deadline looming over our heads but right now it's one foot in front of the other right now and taking care of business today and hopefully execute it, beginning up in Owen Sound tomorrow. It's exciting to get back to work," said Boudreau.
Niagara currently sits 10 points back of the Kingston Frontenacs for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a team they defeated 4-1 on the road in the final week going into the Christmas break.
CHARACTER AND IDENTITY
Credit: Vivid Eye Photography
The IceDogs bench boss believes that the trials and tribulations his team has gone through during the first 32 games of the season has helped build a strong sense of resiliency and bond between the guys in the room.
"I believe that the character group of this team is one of the best assets that we have. The resiliency and the never give up attitude that we have, even in that tight loss to North Bay as we entered the break. I felt like we were really going to pull that off and, in my eyes, we dominated the final two periods of that game and almost swept the three-game weekend," Boudreau said emphatically.
Boudreau added that the standards and identity of how he wants his team to play is something they instill in the players' minds every single day that they walk in the door. "The group knows that this is the way we're going to play, this is the way we're going to prepare, these are our expectations, and something that can be set in stone here for the following years to come is something that is important for us to key on," he said.
The head coach also talked about finding their identity and the mentality that they have to play with to get better in all aspects of their game, within all three zones.
"Our focus is getting back to what our identity is and the details that make our group most successful so it is defense first and when we can preach the defensive details in our own zone, the neutral zone, and the forecheck. We've got to get back to system work; we flushed the legs this morning and now we're really harping on all of the details," said Boudreau.
Boudreau added that the powerplay is a point of emphasis that the group is trying to correct, which currently sits last in the Ontario Hockey League at only a 10% efficiency rate.
"I think one of the biggest things when you look at our team is the powerplay. It is at the bottom of the league right now and it has been struggling. We need to find a way to get it going with the man advantage if we're going to have success, so that was a main focus for us in our first practice back today," Boudreau said assertively.
FROM SLOVENIA WITH GOLD
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Another welcomed returnee to the lineup card for Boudreau is defenseman Urban Podrekar, the Slovenian import who returns to Niagara with gold around his neck, following Slovenia's championship at the Division 1 Group B tournament at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
Boudreau hopes that the success Podrekar had oversees will translate to increased confidence as he returns to the Ontario Hockey League with the IceDogs. "It's great when you get a motivated guy coming back from a tournament like that, but you also get a motivated player that has confidence and sometimes it takes awhile to crack that egg and when you finally do, hopefully the floodgates open for Urban back with us in Niagara," said the IceDogs head coach.
Podrekar scored his first career OHL goal in his final game before leaving for Team Slovenia, which Boudreau hopes will give him even more momentum coming back to Niagara as a key part of the team's defensive unit.
"Urban is a really good defensive player for us, first and foremost, we really missed him in the lineup so to get him back in the fold will be a shot in the arm for us. The fact that he's now won, he now carries a gold medal, he's a motivated hockey player that has a ton of confidence so we can't wait to see what he can do on the ice moving forward," Boudreau concluded.
IceDogs forwards Alex Assadourian, Gavin Bryant, and Michael Podolioukh did not practice today. All other roster players were in attendance and on the ice.
Niagara plays in Owen Sound tomorrow (Thursday), in Erie on Saturday, and home against Guelph on New Years Eve.