A first-place finish during the 2017-2018 regular season that included 116 points from a record of 55-7-6 did not lead to an Ontario Hockey League playoff championship for the Soo Greyhounds.
Instead, the Greyhounds had to settle for second best and watched as the Hamilton Bulldogs — they of a 43-18-7 record and 93-point regular season — skated away with the OHL championship trophy.
Closing arguments on a season that ended just short of expectations for a Soo squad that was favoured to win the OHL championship are still being given and heard.
It is being said that the Greyhounds were out-worked and out-played by the Bulldogs.
It is being said that the Greyhounds were out-coached by the Bulldogs.
It is being said that the Soo was too tired and too banged up from successive seven-game sets against the Owen Sound Attack and Kitchener Rangers to give its best against Hamilton.
It is being said that Greyhound general manager Kyle Raftis erred in not adding a third overage player at the January 9 OHL trade deadline when he could have picked up Garden River First Nation product Owen Headrick — a high-end defenseman — from the Erie Otters for a mid-round draft pick.
Yes, a lot is being said about what led to the Soo being upended in six games by a Hamilton team that the Greyhounds were 23 points better than during the regular season.
At any rate, how about we give credit to Hamilton for being the better team that deserved to win what was a howitzer of a high-stakes, best-of-seven series. Even Greyhound head coach Drew Bannister acknowledged that the Bulldogs were the better team over the course of the six-game set.
While few thought that Hamilton would have enough to be able to beat the Soo four times — twice on the road and twice at home — Bulldogs star forward Robert Thomas said he and his teammates knew right from Game 1 that they were more than capable of upending the Greyhounds and winning the OHL championship.
Not to say that the Greyhounds were unprepared for the Bulldogs. But Hamilton seemed to know exactly what it needed to do to prevail in the series and the Bulldogs were relentless and showed more energy and depth than the Greyhounds.
About that depth.
Hamilton head coach John Gruden utilized four lines and three sets of defensemen in expert fashion while the Soo seemed content to try to win the series by relying too much on its top six forwards.
Simply put, what worked for the Greyhounds during the regular season did not carry on through the playoffs.
As the Soo had that 55-7-6 record during the regular season, its playoff marked dipped to 14-10. It is also worth noting that after sweeping the Saginaw Spirit in the first round of the playoffs, the Greyhounds were a mere .500 team the rest of the way with a record of 10-10.
Hamilton, meanwhile, followed its regular-season record of 43-18-7 with a 16-5 mark throughout the playoffs. The Bulldogs barely let up in defeating the Ottawa 67s, Niagara IceDogs and Kingston Frontenacs in five games apiece and the Greyhounds in six in putting up an impressive playoff record of 16-5.
As Hamilton has taken its OHL playoff championship crown on the road to the Memorial Cup tournament in Regina, Saskatchewan, the Soo plans ahead to 2018-2019 while thinking about how it let 2017-2018 get away at the end.
And the whispers and head shakes continue in Houndtown.
Such as, the Greyhounds were a team that partied too much, lacked discipline and thought the championship would be theirs in the end, regardless.
Such as, many of the veteran players tuned out Bannister and grew tired of his groaning ways and lack of positive motivational skills.
True or not, something seemed to be missing in the championship series from the Soo side. As Hamilton went all out, the Soo played in spurts.
But while the Greyhounds were unable to bring a championship to Sault Ste. Marie for the first time since the Memorial Cup triumph of 1993, there were multiple moments of excitement aplenty along the way.
A franchise-best regular-season record was followed by four playoff rounds and two thrilling Game 7 victories on home ice — one against Owen Sound and another over Kitchener.
And looking ahead to the 2018-2019 season, while several skilled skaters are slated to graduate to the professional ranks, a number of really good players of varying ability and potential are eligible to return.
Not including potential overage (1998 birth year) players, the Greyhounds can return no less than 13 players from the 2017-2018 team in 2018-2019.
The list of players, born in either 1999, 2000 or 2001 that can be Greyhounds again in 2018-2019 includes star forward Morgan Frost, standout defenseman Rasmus Sandin and workhorse goalie Matthew Villalta.
Add the likes of forwards Barrett Hayton, Joe Carroll, Ryan Roth and Sault Ste. Marie product Cole MacKay to the group and the Greyhounds already have a good core in place preparatory to the 2018-2019 campaign.
As with any team, there are a few questions marks ahead of the proverbial next season.
Will Bannister return for a fourth season as head coach or is there a pro job that awaits him somewhere?
Is Villalta as good as his regular-season statistics or as average as his playoff performance that included struggles in each of the second, third and fourth rounds?
Will Frost make it to the National Hockey League with the Philadelphia Flyers as a 19-year old?
Will the fans and local businesses support the team in 2018-2019 in the same manner as they did in 2017-2018 in the wake of the unexpected setback to those Bulldogs of Hamilton?
I am thinking that the fan and business support will remain solid.
In what is a town with somewhat of an aging population, the Greyhounds have managed to attract a good number of young people to their fan base. While I do walk around the rink and see many familiar faces either my age or older, I do see a good number of young people at the games.
Sustaining a fan base and advertising support is a tricky job that entails marketing and promotional strategy that is key to maintaining what is already in place.
At any rate, a season has come to a close for the Red and White of Houndtown. A good season that drew good crowds and was extended into mid May.
Meantime, here’s to the Hamilton Bulldogs, worthy champions of the OHL.