The Erie Otters have been through a lot of stuff this season. Whether it’s been trying to manage a laundry list of injuries or finding ways to overcome frustrating losses, this team has been on a wild roller-coaster ride of emotions.
But despite all of that, the Otters still control their own destiny for the eighth and final playoff spot in the OHL’s Western Conference.
Setting the Scene
The Otters enter Wednesday night with a three-point lead over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds with one game in hand. That game happens Wednesday in Erie when they host the Guelph Storm.
This is the second meeting with the Storm in the past week. The Otters lost a heartbreaker in Guelph Friday night 5-3. A late power-play goal propelled the Storm to a huge win.
While the Storm are safely in the playoff picture at this point, the Otters still have plenty of work to do. Their schedule has some very tough matchups mixed in with some winnable games.
After Wednesday, the Otters have just seven games left including four of their next five on the road. They play in Niagara on Saturday night, then come home to play the Saginaw Spirit.
After that, the games go at Saginaw, at Flint, at Sarnia and then the Otters host their final two games against Flint and against Kitchener.
This makes Wednesday’s game extremely important for the playoff race. A win puts the Otters up five with seven to go. A loss keeps it at three with seven to go. Then it’s a huge race to the finish.
Keep in mind that for the last playoff spot, if two teams are tied in points, there is a play-in game. Anything can happen in a best-of-one.
Wednesday night is huge for the Otters. They want a five-point lead. They want to get back to the winning side on home ice. They want to find a groove before the playoffs should they get there.
But there’s a much more important reason the Otters need to finish this and get to the playoffs at least. The future direction of the team could be at stake.
The Immediate Future of the Otters
As it stands right now, the entire coaching staff and general manager Dave Brown all have contracts that expire after this season. This Otters’ team has said all along that they are a playoff team. They are in position to get there as the eight seed but work remains.
As mentioned earlier, it has been a frustrating season at times for the Otters. Injuries have taken a toll. Playing at home has taken a toll. They couldn’t buy a shootout goal for the longest time. Team meetings were held at different points to try to get everyone on the same page.
One must wonder what team owner Jim Waters is thinking about this. The Otters have missed the playoffs for two straight seasons in a clear rebuild. If things don’t go right at the end here, what would he think of a third straight miss? I couldn’t imagine him being very pleased about that.
If the team were to miss the playoffs, I would expect major decisions being made about the direction of the team. Is Chris Hartsburg doing a good enough job on the bench? Is Dave Brown doing a good enough job bringing talent into Erie? These are all things that must be considered by Waters.
For what it’s worth, the team has expressed all season that Hartsburg is safe. But does that change with a playoff miss? And Brown is without a contract past this season. Will he sign back on and continue to lead the next wave in Erie?
These last games could help us answer those questions. The Otters do control their own destiny and could give someone real fits in the playoffs should they get there. That is if they play the way they can and finish their business on home ice.
But now it’s up to the players. Can they find a way to get wins down the stretch to return to the playoffs? And if they get there, do they have to avoid a four-game sweep in order to avoid changes in leadership? This is where the leaders like Jack Duff, Chad Yetman and Jamie Drysdale need to step up even more.
There’s many questions but few answers at this point. Starting Wednesday night, we might start to get some clues as to what might happen.
There might be just seven games plus the playoffs left. But these games could shape the future for the next several seasons in Erie.
But first, it’s the Storm and Otters on a Wednesday night. Can the Otters get a comfortable lead or will there be more frustration? The puck drops just after 7 P.M.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.