Next up for No. 6 seed Ottawa is top seed Oshawa

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No way could the 67’s have written a better ending to their first-round series with the Brantford Bulldogs.

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Not only did they play their best game in Sunday’s clincher, but apparently, they smelled pretty darn good too.

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We take you to the 15:23 mark of the third period, when Bradley Horner’s second of the night, an empty netter, gave Ottawa a four-goal lead in an eventual 6-1 win.

It also caused Bulldogs centre Florian Xhekaj to snap.

If the past week is any indication, the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Montreal Canadiens prospect will soon be joining his brother Arber in the Habs lineup.

He was a beast against the 67’s, scoring three goals and two assists in the six games, overpowering in the face-off circles and all other areas of the rink while seemingly playing about 45 minutes a night.

Xhekaj’s frustrations in Game 6 boiled over after Horner iced the series.

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He went after one 67, then another, and then another. As he was being ushered off the ice by officials with a game misconduct, Xhekaj had words with Ottawa goalie Collin MacKenzie, who seemed to be goading him from his crease.

“Me and him had been battling all series and he’s a real, real good player,” MacKenzie said with a smirk afterwards. “We were just kind of giving it to each other and having a little fun with that.”

Xhekaj looked like he wanted to get closer and have more than words, MacKenzie was told.

“I think it’s my cologne,” MacKenzie deadpanned. “I was smelling really good.”

You wear cologne when you play?

“I mean, you’ve got to smell good, right?” quipped the 19-year-old puck-stopper. “Looking the part and smelling the part is half of it.”

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MacKenzie made 31 saves in the elimination game, which suggests he was the star of the show, but that’s not entirely true in what was truly a complete team effort.

When asked if he wanted to share any of the credit, he didn’t hesitate.

“I don’t want to take any of the credit,” said MacKenzie. “I mean, look at what this team has done this series, not just this game. Brantford was really good against us (winning three of four during the season). They beat us a lot. The fact we have come together this whole series is something special, especially tonight. They made my job real, real easy against a really good team. We’ve shown a lot of heart and I’m excited for the next series.”

The next series will be against the Generals and is expected to start with games on Friday and Sunday in Oshawa, then return to TD Place for Tuesday and Thursday meetings.

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The Generals are the top seed in the Eastern Conference, while Ottawa is No. 6 and, after knocking off the No. 3 seed Bulldogs, is latching on to the underdog role.

But what do regular season results mean at this stage?

The 67’s lost three of four to the Bulldogs, but beat the Generals six times in eight head-to-heads.

Three of Ottawa’s victories against Oshawa were 3-2 results that went to overtime to decide.

MacKenzie faced the Generals three times, stopping 24 of 25 shots in a 4-1 win and all 33 pucks sent his way in a 5-0 shutout before stopping 26 of 31 in a 5-4 loss.

After ending the regular season with a 12-game winning streak, the Generals eliminated the Barrie Colts in six on Sunday.

“Playoffs is a whole different beast, and the intensity just rises to another level that’s unexplainable,” said MacKenzie. “We were the underdogs coming into this series, and the fact that we can (eliminate Brantford), I think it’s gonna carry into the next one for sure.

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“We’ve embraced (the underdog label) a lot and it’s brought us really close together. Look at last year. We were the No. 1 team. We were supposed to be the best of the best (before being eliminated by Peterborough in Round 2). This year we weren’t ranked that high and I think that’s bringing us even closer together, that we kind of have to fight for it a little more. It’s exciting to see.”

Last spring it took the 67’s just five games to eliminate the Generals from the playoffs. But Oshawa is a much better team a year later, largely because of the play of their own goalie.

Jacob Oster, an undrafted 20-year-old from Ottawa, has been the best ‘tender in the East, if not the entire league. Along with a 35-16-8 regular season record, he had a 2.82 goals against average and a .905 save percentage, and in the playoffs he has been even better with a 1.94 GAA, .926 save percentage and one shutout.

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Stopping Colorado Avalanche first-rounder Calum Ritchie will be a mammoth challenge for the 67’s, as will be beating Oster.

“I love going up against a good goalie,” said MacKenzie. “He’s a really good goalie and he’s had a good year. I think it’s going to be an exciting series.”

Against the Generals, the 67’s will need to play with the discipline they showed in Game 6 against the Bulldogs, when they allowed the visitors just three power plays.

They’ll also need to get production from previously untapped sources like Jack Dever, who had just 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in 55 regular season games and now leads the team in playoff scoring with eight points (two goals, six assists).

“I had some ups and downs, just some inconsistent play, sometimes injury … just everything factored in,” Dever said of his year. “But yeah, I have picked it up lately. I got moved over to centre (between Brady Stonehouse and Horner), which I played growing up, and it’s been pretty big for me.”

He has also risen to the occasion in playoffs before.

“I don’t really know why,” he said. “Big games, I feel I was always pretty good in them.”

The 67’s, as a team, were very good Sunday, in their biggest game this season.

Now it’s time for them to really grasp that underdog role and be even better.

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