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Storm Watch: Merkley’s OT winner saves Guelph from consecutive collapses

DALLAS, TX - JUNE 22: Ryan Merkley poses after being selected twenty-first overall by the San Jose Sharks during the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center on June 22, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Guelph Storm narrowly avoided consecutive collapses in Ontario Hockey League action this past weekend. Here’s how Ryan Merkley’s junior club fared in its two most recent games.

They Otter won that one

Guelph played host to the Erie Otters on Friday, a team that sits near the bottom of the Western Conference. Things were going swimmingly as Guelph amassed a 3-0 lead by the end of the first period, with Merkley drawing the secondary assist on the third goal. While Erie scored the next two goals, Guelph added a fourth before the end of the second period. From that point on, though, it was all Otters, who left the Sleeman Center with a 5-4 overtime win.

Some poor decision making led to the overtime winner, and it was a symptom that affected the team the entire night.

“It wasn’t just the last shift. We make it 4-2, then it’s a comedy of errors from bad penalties to lost battles to odd-man situations, and I’m not sure we got a big save at the end when we needed it as well,” coach and general manager George Burnett told Tony Saxon of Guelph Today.

”You can’t point the finger at it at any one guy and it won’t change unless there’s a commitment from our top guys in particular to manage the puck more effectively and hang on to the puck a lot longer in the offensive zone,” he added.

”We want to play like the Globetrotters and we paid a price for it tonight.”

Taking a bite out of the Greyhounds

On Sunday, Guelph hosted Sault Ste. Marie, the first-place team in the West to whom the Storm had dropped 20 straight games dating back to March, 2014. The Greyhounds feature Philadelphia Flyers prospect Morgan Frost and Barrett Hayton, selected fifth overall by the Arizona Coyotes this year.

Once again, Guelph seemed well on the way to the win after building a 3-0 lead in the first period, but once again, they allowed the Sault come all the way back to tie things up and send it to overtime.

The Storm, however, didn’t allow the opposition to complete the job this time around.

After forward Cedric Ralph picked off a pass in the offensive zone, he found Merkley at the right side of the net, where he waited patiently before depositing the game winner into the back of the net.

The extra point puts Guelph in second place behind the Greyhounds atop the Western Conference, five points back with two games in hand.

Merkley’s updated stats

With a goal and an assist over the two games, Merkley maintained his better than point per game status for the season. He’s now recorded three goals and 11 assists in 12 games, and his 14 points put him third among OHL defensemen behind Tyler Tucker (2018 seventh-round pick of the St. Louis Blues) and Mac Hollowell (2018 fourth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs).

He’s tied with Holowell for second with 1.17 points per game, with Bode Wilde (2018 second-round pick of the New York Islanders) leading with way with 1.3 p/pg. Eight of his points are primary in nature, and he sits in a tie for second at 0.67 p1/pg, behind Wilde’s 0.8.

His shots on goal continue to lag, though. He’s hit the net only 19 times in 12 games, and he ranks 50th in that stat among players at his position. As a point of comparison, Nicolas Mattinen (2016 sixth-round pick of the Maple Leafs) leads all OHL defensemen with 61 shots through 15 games.

Still, as has been written in this space already this season, he’s putting points and getting the puck to his talented teammates up the ice, and Guelph is scoring four goals a game.

If we’re using Burnett’s Globetrotters comparison, Merkley is the point guard who distributes the ball, takes the occasional shot, and — if we’re being honest — gives it away with enough regularity to keep the Washington Generals in the game too often and for too long.

Ralph’s defensive awareness and his willingness to make the smart play is more indicative of what is expected from Merkley & Co. this season.

“We’re a new team this year and we’re expected to do a lot of big things,” Ralph, who also had a goal Sunday, said, per Guelph Today. ”I was thinking shot at first, but I saw something open up, a little two-on-one. I thought I’d fake the shot and give it to Merks and it ended up working.”

That play certainly helped the team head out on the road for a rematch with the Greyhounds in a better frame of mind.

“Absolutely. I think it helps,” Burnett said. We go back up there next week and it’s always a hornet’s nest when you play up there.”

But first, a rare weeknight game is on tap.

Up next:

Tuesday Oct. 30 @ Kitchener Rangers
Friday Nov. 2 @ Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Saturday Nov. 3 @ Saginaw Spirit