Barrie squad jumps out of the gate with strong October; Lazarev has been dynamite in net

By Stephen Sweet, Special to Postmedia Network

Mississauga Steelheads forward Shaw Boomhower and Barrie Colts defenceman Joey Keane chase the puck during Ontario Hockey League action at the Barrie Molson Centre on Saturday night. KEVIN LAMB/PHOTO

Mississauga Steelheads forward Shaw Boomhower and Barrie Colts defenceman Joey Keane chase the puck during Ontario Hockey League action at the Barrie Molson Centre on Saturday night. KEVIN LAMB/PHOTO

The Barrie Colts were going to be a better team this year.

But if the month of October is any indication of where the team will sit in the Ontario Hockey League, the jump should be significant.

The Colts wrapped up their first full month of hockey with a 6-3 record that is even more impressive than what they had expected.

“I think, right from the start of camp, I don’t know if I’d say we’d have this strong of a start, but I do believe in this group and think we have a good group here,” said Colts forward Kyle Heitzner.

The underlying stats show how strong Barrie has been in this stretch.

Two of their three defeats in this month were at the hands of the Sarnia Sting, the top-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League that has not lost since the first weekend of the season.

Barrie’s much-maligned defence of a year ago has grown in its development, enough so that the Colts felt all right letting go of overager Tyler MacArthur and allowing captain Justin Murray and a number of rookies and sophomores handle the back end.

The Colts posted back-to-back shutouts a week ago in front of the always energetic and fiercely competitive Leo Lazarev, who is the undisputed No. 1 goalie with Christian Propp having been dealt away.

“You don’t ever see that guy going 90% or 80%, because he’s always going 100%,” said Colts forward Aidan Brown. “He’s just that guy who wants it so bad, and you can tell in the room with his pre-game routines and rituals that that guy wants to win.

“That’s a great thing to have in a goaltender and you feel confident with him behind you.”

At the other end, the Colts have returned to the high-scoring ways that have become the norm under head coach Dale Hawerchuk.

Despite playing the second half of October without the services of Andrei Svechnikov, who had 10 markers in as many contests, Barrie still averaged four goals per game.

“The biggest thing is, we have a deep lineup,” said Heitzner, who himself has added to his offensive game. “We’ve had big secondary scoring contributions from guys like (Curtis) Douglas) and (Jaden) Peca, guys who have really stepped up this year.

“If we can keep up that secondary scoring, we can take advantage of teams’ third and fourth lines and have success.”

Brown echoed those sentiments.

“Obviously, we’ve got our goalscorers in (Zach) Magwood and (Lucas) Chiodo, but a guy like Douglas and Peca, they’re two guys that have been killing penalties, Douglas is on the second (power-play) unit, and whatever they’ve been doing, they’ve got to keep doing it, because they’ve been great,” Brown said.

Save for last Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Mississauga Steelheads — Barrie’s lone blemish not involving the Sting this month — the Colts have had a ferocious forecheck, and it has paid off.

“We come over the red line hard and want to make that puck ours,” Brown said. “So we’re a hard team to play against.

“No one is afraid to go into a puck battle and everyone wants to come in there and get that puck and make a play.”

There have been some notable additions to this team, including Alexey Lipanov, who has put up 16 points in his first 14 OHL games, and top pick Ryan Suzuki, whose unmistakable skill has him second in rookie scoring behind only Svechnikov.

But those players have come in to be part of a unit, one that has grown together through a tough 2016-17 campaign.

“We are young right now, but it just comes down to the team we have,” Brown said. “If you have chemistry, it doesn’t really matter your age.

“If you go out there and outwork the other guys, it doesn’t matter whether they’re older or younger, things are going to go your way.”

With the Colts now leading the Central Division, no one is taking them lightly anymore.

“Dale said it best,” Heitzner said. “He said teams are coming out hard against us now, so we have to come out harder. If you want to stay at the top, you have to take the whole pie and do everything right.

“Do everything that got you there, don’t let anything go, and keep doing the little things.”

Barrie will play a pair of road games this week, taking on the Ottawa 67’s on Friday and the Peterborough Petes Saturday.