By Spencer Seymour
For the first time since 2005-06, the St. Marys Lincolns will challenge for a Western Conference Championship title after eliminating the London Nationals in four straight games.
Head Coach Jeff Bradley said that, in his eyes, the win not only solidified the team’s place in the conference championship series, but also their status as the premier GOJHL destination in the region.
“I think we cemented ourselves as the top team in this area,” Bradley told the Independent. “You look at the playoff teams in this area, all of them got swept except for us. It’s incredibly important for the future of this team for the fans and the players we’re recruiting to know that we’re the top spot in the area in this conference.”
The Lincolns will meet the Leamington Flyers with the conference title on the line in what is a clash of unusually hot teams. With the Flyers also sweeping their first two playoff matchups, first the Sarnia Legionnaires and then the LaSalle Vipers, the conference final pits two teams who have yet to lose in the post-season. According to the Head Coach, the team is looking forward to what will be potentially the toughest challenge since he joined the Lincolns.
“We’re excited for the next challenge [against Leamington],” said Bradley. “From the players to the coaches to the trainers to the executive, we feel like a team. When you go through important hockey games together as a group, I think it brings everyone closer and that’s what it’s doing for us. It’s incredibly fun to be a part of.”
Game One of the series will take place in Leamington on Thursday, March 30th, with Game Two taking place at the PRC the following day. The series returns to Leamington for Game Three on Sunday. All of the games will be broadcast live at stmarysradio.com.
A key match-up will be Lincs’ goalie Matteo Lalama and Flyers’ goalie and former Lincoln Bryce Walcarius. Among Western Conference goalies who have played at least two playoff games, Lalama and Walcarius are first and second in save percentage (SV-%) and goals against average (GAA). Walcarius has a 1.71 GAA and 0.937 SV-% in seven playoff games, while Lalama enters the series with a 2.08 GAA and 0.943 SV-% in eight starts.
The top six Western Conference point scorers and 10 of the top 11 are all playing in this series. Leamington’s Ryan and Connor MacPherson are both averaging at least two points per game, with the former sitting in first in points among all Western Conference skaters and the latter leading Leamington in goals. Meanwhile, St. Marys’ Michael Elliston ranks first in goals in the conference with nine tallies in eight games.
Ryan MacPherson and Nathan Small are tied for first in game-winning goals in the West. Small also leads all defenders in the West in points and has at least one point in every playoff game so far. Flyers’ rearguard Koen Taves is second in points among defencemen in the conference.
Lincs sweep Nats in Game Four
Every time the Nationals scored once, the Lincolns scored twice. And even though the shot clock suggested a London onslaught, once again, the Lincs’ defensive structure for most of the game kept the quality of the Nats’ chances low.
“There’s no quit in our group,” Bradley explained. “We know when to push and when to contain a bit more. To have a team full of guys who are like that, who know how to respond, it shows the mental toughness of the team. They didn’t want to leave it to Wednesday or Friday night, they wanted this series done as soon as possible so they could move on to the next one.”
One of the few London players who had a good series against St. Marys was Sam O’Reilly and that continued with the London Knights’ second-round draft pick capitalizing on a somewhat shaky start by St. Marys to open the scoring. However, the pattern of responding quickly started shortly thereafter with Elliston scoring his eighth of the playoffs just 59 seconds after O’Reilly’s goal.
Approximately nine minutes later, two more goals in quick succession came, with Luca Spagnolo ending his goal drought and potting his first of the post-season. Just 14 seconds later, Talan Palmer tied the game back up at two apiece. With 33 seconds left in the first, Ethan Lamoureux scored his third of the playoffs to give the Lincolns a 3-2 lead heading into the first intermission.
In the second period, the Lincolns got some offence from an unexpected source with the trio of Cole Schnittker, Eric Smith, and Adrian Stubberfield chipping in two goals. Schnittker, the eventual game-winner, and Smith got the goals with Stubberfield earning two assists. Bradley credited the three forwards for being consistent contributors to the team’s winning ways, even if those contributions don’t always appear on the stats page.
“We rely on our top six guys to put up points and our bottom six to be role players but now, to get into the playoffs and have different lines stepping up, it’s incredibly important. Cole, Eric, and Adrian are an incredibly important line for us, especially at home, so for them to get on the scoresheet was a really nice feeling for them and nice for their teammates to see. Those three go under the radar but they are incredibly important to the success of this team.”
Bradyn Santavy got London’s lone goal of the middle stanza, while Elliston picked up his second of the contest on the powerplay.
In the third, a desperate Nationals’ squad switched goalies, sending affiliate player Carter Froggett into the game for the final frame as the team looked for a spark. Chase MacQueen-Spence made it 7-3 with his second of the post-season at 12:26. When London got a powerplay with six minutes and 12 seconds left in regulation, they elected to pull their goaltender for a six-on-four man advantage. However, Jacob Chantler managed to fire the puck into the empty net to give the Lincolns their eighth of the game.
Riley Wood got the deficit back to four goals with an unassisted marker with 2:18 remaining, but the Lincolns managed to neatly lock the game down after that, cruising to an 8-4 win.
Bradley, who was an Assistant Coach on the Nats’ bench prior to joining the Lincolns, didn’t want too much of the spotlight but did admit that it was a special feeling to defeat his former team.
“I try not to make it about myself but it is different than beating any other team, not just for me but for guys like Chantler, Elliston, Small, Cornfield, and Lalama. This was personal for them and it gave them extra motivation. For me, I have a lot of respect for the players, coaches, and trainers of that organization so I don’t want to beat them personally. I had a lot of fond memories from my time in London but it definitely is a good feeling to beat your former team.”
“You could tell it meant a lot to the fans as well. It’s a 400,000-plus-population city against a town of 7,000. We felt like the underdogs. We felt like there were a lot of people picking London to win that series and we took it personally. It was good motivation for us. We thought we were as good or better than London and we wanted to prove it.”