A Look At The West Conference First Round – by C. Scott Holland
The West Conference has always been a tough conference to win, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. For decades it has given Jr. B hockey some of its best rivalries. This season proved to be one of the most interesting ones in its history and went right to the wire to determine several of the last seeds.
At a glance the opening round is usually an easy one for the top couple of teams, but the parity in this conference means that there isn’t a team that will win unless they come prepared, respect their opponent and battle for a solid 60 minutes or more.
Leamington vs St. Marys
Yes it is the powerful first-place team against the lowly eighth seed, but it also is one of the longest bus trips for a visiting GOJHL team. Physical endurance will be a must and while the Flyers have proven in regular season that they can handle the Lincs, the scores for the most part have been relatively low. That has been a signature of the Flyers’ winning style. Leamington is bound to break out of its mini-scoring slump that has hit them in February and the Lincs may be the cure. Emanuel Vella has played very well of late but the Lincs will need stronger defense and perhaps a bit of luck if they are to top Leamington in any games. Flyers in four straight.
London vs Strathroy
Of all the matchups that the Strathroy Rockets could have obtained, this is the one that may suit them the best. It is an opponent close to home which will certainly save the cash-strapped club money – no bus, nor meals are required and the crowds should be larger at both rinks due to their close proximity. As a regular season opponent these two clubs have had four close battles out of six games. The Nats may have won 5 of those contests, but they have not been playing well the past few weeks – perhaps they have taken the foot off the pedal a bit waiting for they playoffs to start as they coasted into second place. London has also suffered some serious injuries mostly due to concussion issues. Not having John Warren in the lineup is not good news yet the Nats still have the overall firepower and defense to take the Rockets. The only surprise here might be if the Rockets can pull off a victory. The anticipated return of their scoring leader, underager Shane Bulitka, who missed the final few games of the regular season, should help. Their only win in the season series was a 4-0 shutout in London, but that was with the departed Mat Ouellet in goal. It will be a hard-hitting, ice-pack series and one which may have several close scores. The Nats should prevail in four.
LaSalle vs Sarnia
Like the past couple of seasons, Bill Bowler has the Vipers in high gear thanks in part to a couple of trade deadline pick-ups, including last year’s Sutherland Cup MVP Daniel Beaudoin, and the return from injury of vet defenseman and captain, Nathan Veres. Despite goalie Paolo Battisti being suspended for two playoff contests, Eli Billing has proven he can provide more than solid netminding. The Vipers have been on a tear down the stretch and show no signs of letting up. This should be a highly physical match-up and one in which suspensions may hit both teams. It’s a precarious time of year, too, when suspensions could seriously hurt a team and its drive. Discipline will be a key factor but Sarnia needs a couple of Vendramins just to match the Vipers’ firepower. Vipers in four.
Chatham vs St. Thomas
In what could be one of the most contested first-round series, the Stars and Maroons have had some intense battles already this season. The biggest factor though is the emergence of the Maroons young scorers like Teddy McGeen and Austin Thompson. They are doing the bulk of the scoring work while the vets are supplying the leadership and groundwork. The Stars biggest downfall was the loss of Ryan Valentini and Eric Henderson. The offense void has never really been filled despite the fact they did get a spike with the arrival of Ethan Nother. Nother’s status is unknown as he missed the final two games of the regular season. Neither the Stars nor the Maroons have stellar goaltending but Chatham’s Parker Butler has fared well for a rookie and Dan Black and Nik Dampier are either hot or cold – St. Thomas will need one or the other to play superbly and hope that their defense can curtail the Maroons’ high-powered offense and deadly penalty killers who terrorized the Western Conference with shorthanded goals. Penalties will be huge in this matchup too. Chatham takes far too many and if the Stars’ powerplay can click, and keep those Maroon penalty killers off the scoresheet, there could be an upset. Look for the Maroons to prevail in five.
C. Scott Holland is an accomplished author, a former Western Jr. B Hockey League statistician and is recognized as the West Conference’s and GOJHL’s historian. A lifelong resident of Leamington Scott was a journalist for the now defunct Leamington Post for 26 years and currently writes for the Southpoint Sun. Among the books he has authored are: 75 Years: A History of the Leamington and Erie Shores Golf Course; A Century In The Making – History of Heinz Canada 1909-2009; Leamington Flyers 1992/93-2011/12 Platinum Anniversary Special Program; the Western Jr. B Record Book 2003/04 and 2005/05 editions; as well as updates of both the West Conference and GOJHL Record Books. He was been a member of he Leamington Jr. Flyers hockey club for the last 27 years and served many years as a board member, statistician, press box announcer, and scorekeeper among other duties. He has been named the West Conference Volunteer of Year and a Windsor-Essex Sportsperson of Year award. He resides in Leamington.