For the second straight season, the London Nationals have won the Bill Weir Championship Trophy emblematic of Western Conference supremacy in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.  The Nationals eliminated the Leamington Flyers in five games.  London will have a little time off to enjoy their victory and prepare for the Sutherland Cup semi-finals as they wait for the other two Conference champions and the wild card to be determined.  In the Golden Horseshoe Conference the three-time Sutherland Cup defending champion Caledonia Pro-Fit Corvairs lead the St. Catharines Falcons 3-2 while the Midwestern Conference is tied at 2-2 between the Listowel Cyclones and the Elmira Sugar Kings.  The runner-up from one of the three conferences with the best winning percentage will earn the wild card position.

After splitting the first two games of the Western Conference finals the Nationals took the next three games to send them into the provincial playoffs.  They blanked the Flyers in back-to-back games by 4-0 and 2-0 scores before sending 729 fans at the Western Fair into delirium with a convincing 6-2 victory in game five.  It was an outstanding playoff run for former Strathroy Blade Pat Powers and his London National squad.  The Nats finished in third place in the regular season and kept getting stronger throughout the playoffs.  Head coach Powers, who shares the general manager duties with former Strathroy Rocket volunteer Tim Simmons, had only five players returning to the team this season from last year’s championship team.  Simmons is the son of John Simmons who was the general manager of the Rockets’ 1996 championship team.

After being shut out by the Flyers in Leamington in game two, the Nationals responded with a 4-0 blanking of the Flyers at the Western Fair on Saturday, April 1 in front of 643 fans to take a 2-1lead in the series.

London put a blanket over Leamington allowing just 12 shots on goaltender Cameron Zanussi over the sixty minutes.  Noah Hedrick faced 30 London shots.

The Nationals led by period scores of 1-0 and 3-0 in this incredibly tight-checking affair.  Ethan Nother (9) got the Nats on the board early at 3:30 as he swooped around the Flyers’ defense.  The goal would stand up to be the game winner.  First period shots were 8-3.

Brandon Glover (6) on a powerplay at 1:41 and Isaiah Payne (2) at 12:26 added to the London lead in the second period in which the Flyers were outshot 11-4.  The huge goal was defenseman Payne’s centre point shot through traffic that found the back of the net and put the Nationals up 3-0.

With 5:19 remaining in regulation time and the Flyers trailing by 3-0 and National Max Vinogradov heading to the penalty box, Flyers head coach Tony Piroski pulled Hedrick for an extra attacker.  The ploy backfired as Austin Kemp (10) netted a short-handed empty net marker to seal the Flyers’ fate.  Third period shots favoured London 11-5.  Both teams had 5 powerplay opportunities.

The following night in Leamington, 821 Flyer fans saw their team pushed to the brink of elimination with a 2-0 setback to the Nationals.  The back-to-back shutout games gave London a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Although the Flyers failed to score a goal for the second consecutive game, it was a much better effort than the night before in London.  Shots were even at 33-33.

Michael Andlauer (6) tallied the only goal of the evenly played first period at 9:43 when he found open ice in front of goaltender Hedrick after a nice pass from behind the goal line by Richard Whitaker.  Shots were 9-9.

Adam Sinclair (5) scored the key insurance goal with two Flyers in the penalty box at 7:47 of the second period.  London dominated the middle frame outshooting Leamington 13-4.  The Flyers had a powerplay goal disallowed when Nat goaltender Zanussi knocked the net off of its moorings before the puck crossed the line.  Zanussi managed to dislodge the net three times during the match to negating dangerous Flyer scoring chances.

The Flyers poured the pressure on in the scoreless third period outshooting the Nationals 20-11, however Zanussi put in his best period of the series to preserve the shutout and give his teammates a 3-1 series lead.  Both clubs had 6 powerplay opportunities.  The Flyers, whose scoring had dried up in the last two games, had great difficulty executing their plays.

The Nationals clinched the championship on Wednesday, April 5 at the Western Fair with a solid 6-2 win.  The win was practically never in doubt from the drop of the puck.  The Nats stormed the Flyer goal outshooting the Flyers 7-0 in the first two minutes.  Flyers’ head coach Piroski called a time out to try to settle his troops.  Undeterred, London continued their assault at the Leamington goal when Trottier and Suzuki set up Kemp (11) whose accurate shot sailed over Hedrick’s shoulder for a 1-0 lead at 4:32.

Fifteen-year-old Suzuki, a possible first overall pick in the OHL Draft, was moved onto the top line with Trottier and Kemp.  Andlauer (7) had the Nationals up 2-0 at 15:30 after a lovely setup from behind the net by former Strathroy Rocket Liam Fordy.

Flyer netminder Hedrick was easiest the busiest player on the ice as the Flyers were outshot 24-8.

The Nats added three more goals in the second period to take a 5-0 lead into the third period and extending the Flyer scoreless drought to 8 periods.

The game’s turning point came at 9:21 when Flyer Griffin Robinson took an accidental double minor penalty for high sticking.  The Nationals scored on both ends of the powerplay.

Glover (7) scored with a tap-in at the back door after a deft chip saucer pass from Trottier at 9:43.  Eight seconds later Flyer netminder Hedrick was felled with a blast to the facemask from Vinogradov.  Hedrick was forced from the game and Connor Meyerink came on in relief.  Nother (10) put London up 4-0 with a tremendous individual effort at 10:59.  He dangled through the Leamington penalty killers finishing his rush with a double toe-drag.  The effort would certainly garner goal of the year consideration.

Meyerink was tested shortly later coming up with a huge stop denying Fordy on a breakaway.

At 17:51 Vinogradov (9) showed great patience as he out-waited Meyerink at the side of the net until the goaltender over committed to put the Nationals up 5-0.

It was an improved period for the Flyers however they did allow three goals and were outshot 14-11.

Hedrick went back in goal to begin the third period.  The Flyers snapped the shutout at 5:58 with a tap-in goal of their own.  Liam Hogan spotted Josh Pope-Ferguson (6) who was left unguarded at the back post.  When Cale Phibbs (3) stole the puck at the National blueline 45 seconds later and danced around the London defense the Flyers suddenly cut the lead to 5-2 and had a glimmer of hope as the Western Fair suddenly silenced.  It was a remarkable goal by Phibbs.  He dove around the final National defender, firing a backhand over Zanussi as he fell to the ice.  The goal was very reminiscent of Paul Henderson’s game winning goal in game 7 of the 1972 Summit Series in Moscow.

As the Flyers continued to press Nother (11) notched his second goal of the night at 10:52 to but the final dagger into Leamington’s comeback bid.  Nother found himself in behind cover and beat Hedrick with a slick deke.  Leamington had a 14-6 advantage in shots on goal in the third period.  Final shots favoured London 44-33.  London clicked on 2 of 3 powerplay chances while Leamington was unsuccessful in 4 chances.

Hedrick allowed 4 goals on 34 shots and Meyerink allowed 2 goals on 10 shots.  Hedrick finished the playoffs with a 4-5 record with a 2.50 GAA and a 92.5 S%.  Meyerink has a 5-3 record with a 2.56 GAA and a 93.4 S%.  Zanussi played every minute of the playoffs for the Nationals finishing with a 12-3 record, a 2.59 GAA and a 91.3 S%.

Special teams were a massive determining factor for London’s playoff success.  They boasted the top powerplay in the entire GOJHL converting 27 of 87 chances (31.03%).  Leamington’s powerplay was ranked 14th converting 13 of 80 chances (16.25%)

Nother led the Nationals in playoff scoring with 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points in 15 games.  Kemp tied Nother for the team lead in goals scored.  Blake Bain, Scott Florence and defenseman Jaydon Fetter tied in Flyer playoff scoring with 16 points.  Fetter led the Flyers with 14 assists while captain Zach Guilbeault led the club with 10 goals.  Former St. Thomas Star Nother was presented with the Playoff MVP Award in a post game ceremony.

Congratulations to the London Nationals as they move on to represent the Western Conference in the Sutherland Cup playoffs.

(photo – Derek Berg)

David Honsberger

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