Playoff hockey is back.
It has been more than two years between post-season play for some teams in the Bill Stobbs Division in the Provincial Junior Hockey League.
“It felt good to make it to this point,” Lakeshore Canadiens’ head coach Anthony Iaquinta said. “When you start the year, you don’t know where it’s going to go with what’s happened the last two years. It’s been an interesting year.”
Like many leagues, clubs have had to deal with shutdowns and a reduced schedule, but the Essex 73’s kicked off the first round of the playoffs on Tuesday with a 5-2 win over the Petrolia Flyers at the Essex Centre Sports Complex. Three other quarter-final series will follow.
“It’s been two years since we last played a playoff game,” Amherstburg Admirals’ head coach Paul Bortignon said. “We’re thankful for the situation we’re in and everyone’s goal is to win a championship, but the you look at things from a birds-eye view, we’re thankful to play a series and see how far we can go from there.”
Following is a brief look at the three series involving local teams.
No. 1 Lakeshore Canadiens (28-2-0-2) vs. No. 8 Wallaceburg Thunderhawks (5-24-2-1)
Few will give the Thunderhawks any chance against the Canadiens, who were seeking a third-straight title in March of 2020 when the league shut down due to the pandemic.
“Stranger things have happened, so we have to come ready to play and make sure we’re doing the right things the right way,” said Iaquinta, whose team opens the series at home on Friday. “For us, one of the biggest keys is to make sure we’re creating good habits and our work ethic is where it needs to be.”
Lakeshore won all four meetings between the two teams during the regular season and outscored the Thunderhawks 29-2 in the process. Iaquinta knows things only get tougher as the playoffs progress and the key for the Canadiens is to shift into that playoff mindset even in the first round.
“The main thing is we have to worry about us and what our work level is and not coast through it,” Iaquinta said. “Stay disciplined and stay out of the penalty box. I think, towards end of season, we got a little bit away from that and, if want to go far, you have to avoid doing that.”
No. 2 Essex 73’s (25-6-0-1) vs. No. 7 Petrolia Flyers (6-21-2-3)
This is another series that doesn’t look poised to produce an upset.
“Any team in this league can win on any given night,” 73’s head coach Danny Anger said. “The focus is on our game.”
Essex also swept the season series between the two teams and outscored the Flyers 29-6 in the process in four games.
Josh Root scored the game-winning goal for the 73’s just 15 seconds into the third period to snap a 2-2 tie in Tuesday’s series opener. Ryan McKim, Luke Sherk, Matt Smith and Curtis Jackson added single goals for Essex.
One thing to watch in this series is the physical play. Petrolia topped the division in penalty minutes and Essex was right behind.
“It’s been pretty physical,” Anger said of the regular-season series. “We won’t get pushed around, but I don’t want suspensions and injuries because of stupidity
“I want to be able to roll four lines and all four lines to contribute on and off the scoresheet. I don’t want them to create bad habits.”
No. 4 Amherstburg Admirals (16-5-0-1) vs. No. 5 Wheatley Sharks (16-5-0-1)
The third-seeded Mooretown Flags will face the sixth-seeded Blenheim Blades in another quarter-final series, but the most intriguing playoff matchup of the first round will likely be between the Admirals and Sharks.
“I would agree with that,” Sharks’ head coach Josh Carnevale said.
The two teams finished with identical records, but the Admirals won three of the four meetings in the regular season and tied the other to secure home-ice advantage. That despite Wheatley scoring 35 goals more in the regular season compared to Amherstburg and allowing eight fewer goals.
“Just the work ethic,” Carnevale said of the Admirals. “They’re built similar to us, but (their success) was a good work ethic.
“They work hard and it’s matching their compete level. They’re going to come out physical and we have to be ready.”
Two keys to the series will be Wheatley’s big three of Dallas Anderson, Braedon Caetano and Matt Carvalho, who accounted for 50 goals and 95 points, staying hot.
“The three-headed monster, they do it both offensively and defensively and hopefully they find that next level,” Carnevale said.
For the Admirals, the key will be overcoming the loss of starting goalie Nicholas Bolton, who is out for at least the first round with a back injury.
The Admirals picked up 17-year-old Ethan Dagenais, who started the season in Wallaceburg and also spent time with the junior B LaSalle Vipers, and also have 18-year-old rookie Josh Courtney.
“Dagenais will probably get the start,” said Bortignon, whose team opens the series at home on Wednesday. “I’m sure it’ll be a fun series.”
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