HISTORIC WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS BEGIN
Ever since the advent of a nine or ten-team Western Conference in 1999-2000 never has a third and fourth seeded team met in the championship final series – until this year. The London Nationals, who finished the 2016-17 season in third place, defeated the sixth place St. Marys Lincolns in the quarter-finals and the second place Chatham Maroons in the semi-finals. The Leamington Flyers, who finished the 2016-17 season in fourth place eliminated the fifth place Sarnia Legionnaires in the quarter-finals and upset the first place LaSalle Vipers in the semi-finals.
In fact the Western Conference of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, or its predecessor the Western Ontario Junior B Hockey League, has been so dominated by teams finishing in first or second place this series marks just the third time in 27 years that a first or second place team has failed to advance to the finals. Those two exceptions were in 2009-10 when LaSalle (5) played the St. Thomas Stars (7) and in 2011-12 when London (3) met the Strathroy Rockets (7).
The finals began on Wednesday, March 29 at the Western Fair in London. The Nationals escaped with a narrow 5-4 win courtesy of a tie-breaking powerplay marker with 32 seconds remaining in regulation time by defenseman Quinn Lenihan (2). Lenihan’s screened wrist shot from the centre point position rang off the goal post and past Flyer netminder Connor Meyerink with Scott Florence serving a questionable high sticking penalty. Special teams were a determining factor for the London win. The Nationals improved on their #2 ranked powerplay. They entered the game clicking at a 33.8% conversion rate capitalizing on 2 of 3 opportunities while the Flyers were unsuccessful in scoring on a double minor to Nationals Max Vinogradov in the second period. The Nationals won all six regular season meetings between the two teams.
London trailed on the scoreboard for most of the game. The Flyers led on 3 separate occasions. Flyer Broden Meloche (1) tallied his first goal of the post-season when his shot on an odd-man break squeaked through Cameron Zanussi’s pads and trickled over the goal line at 9:33 of the first period. It was Leamington’s first shot on goal in the game. London, who began the game with a flurry, had nine shots. The goal came seconds after the Nationals rattled a puck off the goal post. The Leamington lead was short lived as Carson Brookshaw (5), the OHA Junior B Player of the Year the previous season with the St. Thomas Stars, redirected a shot from the side-boards by Jaimen Allison 42 seconds later. The Flyers took a 2-1 lead at 18:52 when Flyer captain Zach Guilbeault (11) cashed in a rebound. It was just the Flyers’ third and fourth shots of the period. They were trailing 14-2 on the shot clock prior to the goal. First period shots finished 17-6 for the Nationals. Flyer goaltender Meyerink, who was easily that game’s first star, made many outstanding saves.
Vinogradov (8) tied the game at 2-2 at 10:02 of the second period when his shot struck the cross bar and ricocheted into the Flyer goal. Griffin Robinson (10) sent a shockwave through the arena when he crossed the London blueline and blasted a shot past Zanussi at 13:17 to put the Flyers back on top at 3-2. It would be the Flyers last lead of the evening. Austin Kemp (9) converted a gorgeous passing play with Brandon Glover and Brendan Trottier at 18:01 on the powerplay with Florence off for slashing to tie the game at 3-3. The Flyers outshot the Nats 12-9 in the middle frame.
London wasted no time getting their first lead of the game. Call-up Ryan Suzuki’s (1) laser shot from the left wing on a rush easily found the top corner over Meyerink’s blocker 34 seconds into the third period. Suzuki, a London AAA Knight, is a projected first round OHL pick. National head coach Pat Powers, a former Strathroy Blade, slotted Suzuki on the first line between Ethan Nother and Vinogradov. Suzuki was taking the place of Adam Sinclair who was sitting out the first of a two-game suspension. The 15-year-old Suzuki, the younger brother of Owen Sound Attack star forward Nick Suzuki, was likely the best skater on the ice.
Just when it looked like the Suzuki goal might stand up to be the game winner Josh Pope-Ferguson (6) received a slick pass from Zak Parlette on a rush. Pope-Ferguson’s frozen rope popped the water bottle behind Zanussi at 15:38 setting up Lenihan’s last minute heroics. Third period shots were 8-7 for London and 34-25 for the Nationals over three periods in front of 629 fans.
The following night in Leamington the Flyers evened the series with a 2-0 blanking over the Nationals in front of 1,017 fans. Noah Hedrick earned the shutout. It was his first start in 6 games. He sat out a two-game suspension incurred in the LaSalle series. London’s stellar powerplay failed them in Leamington as Hedrick and the Flyer penalty killers kept them off the score board in five opportunities. The Flyers went 0 for 2 with the man advantage.
The Nationals outshot the Flyers in all three period for a 32-23 advantage. Hedrick was particularly sharp throughout the game. The Flyers established a physical presence over the Nats. Flyer rearguard Nick Gauvin set the tone early in the game when he levelled National Isaac Walker deep in the London zone. In the second period Nicholas Mainella splattered National speedster Vinogradov with a huge hit. Mainella had an outstanding game. He was solid in both ends of the ice and the Nationals had problems defensively when the big defenseman jumped up into the play.
The two clubs traded some early scoring chances then the game shifted into a tight checking affair which was highlighted by many neutral zone turnovers.
Meloche (2) tallied the game winner on a first period delayed penalty call. Pope-Ferguson set him up with a nice pass from behind the goal line. Meloche had found an open spot just inside the faceoff dot to the right of Zanussi and beat the London keeper with a quick shot.
The Nationals best chance to score came in the second period when Vinogradov was denied on a clear cut breakaway four minutes into the period. A minute later the Flyers had a goal waved off as the two teams fought through a scoreless second period.
The Flyers got the insurance goal they were looking for in the third period. It came after a series of turnovers in the London zone. Brett Vorshuk (5) found himself unmarked in the slot with the puck. He beat a helpless Zanussi with an accurate shot.
With 2:30 remaining in regulation time Suzuki sent a scare through the Highbury Canco Arena when his shot found the iron behind Hedrick on a London powerplay. The Flyer penalty killers were very effective in the third period killing off three National powerplay opportunities.
Oddly both Leamington goals were scored at 13:33. Meloche’s in the first period and Vorshuk’s in the third period.
The series will resume on Saturday, April 1 in London and the following night in Leamington. Game five is scheduled for Wednesday, April 5 in London. Games six and seven, if necessary, are Thursday, April 6 in Leamington and Saturday, April 8 in London.
In the Golden Horseshoe finals the Caledonia Pro-Fit Corvairs took a 1-0 series lead with a triple overtime 3-2 win over the St. Catharines Falcons. Former Strathroy Rocket Eddie Schulz was the overtime hero. Former Rocket defenseman Cole Mayo also plays for Caledonia while another former Rocket, defenseman Dante Copps guards the blueline for the Falcons.
The Listowel Cyclones – Elmira Sugar Kings Midwestern Final series begins on Friday, March 31.
(photo – Shelley J. Quick Photography)