The Erie Otters played their first game of the season without defensemen Travis Dermott on Friday night. It wasn't easy.
Through 29 games this season, Dermott anchored an Erie team to a 25-3-1 record with 27 points (second among OHL defensemen) in 29 games.
And despite an early goal from Otters forward Nick Betz from a bad angle to give Erie a 1-0 lead, the 67’s got the best of the visitors in their first period without their star defensemen. After pressuring Erie’s depleted defense, also without Czech defensemen Erik Cernak, the 67’s answered with a goal from Austen Keating in the high slot.
Tied 1-1, the Otters, hemmed in, gave up scoring chances to Artur Tyanulin and Evan de Haan before taking a late penalty.
The 67’s, without captain Travis Konecny, didn’t appear to miss their own star, outshooting the first-place Otters 15-6 in the first period.
Despite riding a six-game win-streak into the matchup, the Otters continued to struggle without their top players in the second period with two more early penalties. Their opponents, the 67’s, carried a four-game losing streak of their own into the game.
It was Erie’s for the taking, but the roles appeared reversed.
Still, with the 67’s unable to score on five powerplays, the Otters kept the game close and capitalized on a loose puck behind goaltender Leo Lazarev to take a deciding 2-1 lead late in the third period.
Moving forward, the Otters will have to be better without some key pieces if they want to keep their current pace going. Erie is on pace to finish the season 59-7-2, which would tie a record set by the London Knights during the 2004-05 season.
On the backend, filling the void left by Cernak -- a Los Angeles Kings prospect -- is tough, but Dermott fills a special role for the Otters that can’t quite be replaced, according to head coach Kris Knoblauch.
"With Erik and Travis, both are very good defensively but what separates Travis from a good defensemen is how well he breaks the puck out," Knoblauch said following the game. "You can put as much pressure on him as you want and he’ll either get the puck out with a good pass to the forwards, or carry it out, or just elude that pressure so well – Erik does that also but maybe not quite as well as Travis."
Assistant captain Darren Raddysh said it’s up to him to step in and be a leader for the younger players on the team.
"Coach (Knoblauch) said I’m going to have to teach the younger guys what to do and step up with Dermott missing," Raddysh said.
With the second leg of a back-to-back in Kingston tonight, Knoblauch said he’d have to rely on the younger defense quite a bit after challenging veterans like Raddysh with more minutes than they're used to on Friday.
"You can tell that those big minutes that Travis just makes look so easy, we missed them," he said.
Dermott is one of 10 remaining defensemen at Canada's selection camp vying for seven spots. He has been paired with Philadelphia Flyers prospect Travis Sanheim early on in camp, where the two have also spent time on one of the team’s powerplay units.
Hockey Canada caps off its selection camp this weekend with back-to-back games against a team of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) all-stars before departing for Finland for this year’s World Juniors.
If Dermott makes Team Canada, the Otters could play as many as 10 games in his absence.