Oilers' duo embracing playoff's dirty work
Hockey: Connor Hartley and Cody Michelle thriving out of the spotlight
By: By Remy Greer
| Posted: Wednesday, Mar 20, 2013 10:48 pm
You might not see their names among the league’s scoring leaders or as nominees for league awards, but a pair of Okotoks Junior A Oilers wouldn’t have it any other way.
Okotoks Oilers linemates Connor Hartley and Cody Michelle have carved out a niche as vital playoff performers in the less glamorous roles as checking forwards, penalty killers and team grinders.
“We don’t care if we score or if we don’t score as long as we contribute to the team,” said Michelle, a rugged 21-year-old winger from Prince Albert. “We both like getting in the dirty areas and on the penalty kill we know where each other is and I can’t even remember the last time we had a powerplay goal scored on us.”
The responsible checking forwards have been at their best in a tight as nails second round playoff series with the Camrose Kodiaks as both players are peaking at the right time.
Following a season mired by a broken jaw with the Coquitlam Express of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, Michelle said he’s gradually molded into his current role with the Oilers.
“I’ve found my game in the playoffs now because this is my last year (of Junior) and I want to give it everything I got,” said Michelle, who registered 24 points in the regular season. “I’m just thinking every game is my last game out there and I’m going to try and do anything for my teammates.”
For Hartley, a 19-year-old centre out of the vaunted Red Deer Midget AAA program, the adjustment more of a checking role has been a little more pronounced in Junior.
“In Midget I was always a goal scorer, but coming into Junior your roles change with the bigger, faster guys,” said Hartley. “I don’t mind playing this role, it helps us win. I try to help the team any way that I can.”
Hartley, who chipped in 22 points in the regular season, has more than earned the trust of his coaching staff. The pivot is the Oilers’ first choice for defensive zone face-offs and in late game situations with a lead to protect.
“He’s a complete player, he’s very good at both ends of the rink and very rarely makes any mistakes,” said Oilers head coach James Poole. “He’s a coaches’ type of player because you know you can trust him in any situation.”
Hartley and Michelle have drawn the assignment of matching wits with Kodiak top-line centre Nolan Marshall and 17-year-old rookie-of-the-year Tanner MacMaster for much of the series.
“Between their top two lines we try to make it uncomfortable for them,” Hartley said. “And try and help out our scorers to get the goals.”
Though the Oilers’ gritty veteran line is often matched against the opposition’s top forwards, Michelle, Hartley and current linemate Tanner Olstad are spark plugs with their possession style of hockey in the offensive zone and physicality without the puck.
“As long as me and Harts (Hartley) are going we’re that underdog that can get our team going,” Michelle said. “Not by scoring, but by getting shifts in their zone and hitting.”
In the epic first round series with the Olds Grizzlys, the Hartley line was at the centre of Okotoks’ push back on the big, bad bears.
The line has accepted its role of being defensively responsible against the stingy team defence of the Camrose Kodiaks in round two.
“A lot of times it’s the little things that are going to make the difference between wins and losses at this time of the year,” Poole said.
“Playing Camrose there’s some low scoring games and with Connor and Cody in terms of blocking shots, getting pucks out of the zone or defensively picking up guys on the back check they’re very smart hockey players.”
The Oilers bench boss credited the Red Deer and Prince Albert minor hockey products for being well coached in their development and subsequently they are invaluable teammates.
“They’re character guys that don’t get the recognition of a (Chris) Collins or a (Jared) D’Amico, but they’re definitely extremely valuable to us,” Poole added. “You know what you’re going to get from them every night and their passion is really showing through. Both guys really want to win this year.”
Poole noticed the friendship of the duo early in the season and has paired the two on a two-way line and on the penalty kill for most of the year.
“I think they enjoy playing with each other because they’re both what you would call honest hockey players, they both play the game the right way,” Poole said. “I think they respect each other for the way they play and seem to have good chemistry in terms of being a responsible line out there with that team first mentality.”
Both players arrived in Big Rock Country via the trade route.
Michelle was acquired in the off-season from the Express, while Hartley was part of a package the Oilers received in 2011 from the Vernon Vipers in exchange for former Okotoks captain Ben Gamache.
Despite their shorter tenures in the green-and-black, Michelle and Hartley are clearly buying into the philosophy espoused by the coaching staff in Okotoks.
“We’re starting to see now that we can do a very special thing here,” Michelle said. “As long as everyone sees that and does their job and does their role we won’t be going home until May.”