By Spencer Seymour
For the first time since 2017, the St. Marys Lincolns and London Nationals will go head-to-head in the Sutherland Cup Playoffs after the Lincs eliminated the Strathroy Rockets in four games.
St. Marys’ semi-final began this past Wednesday with Game One in London, with Game Two at the PRC this Friday.
In round one, the Nationals swept the St. Thomas Stars in four games. The other Western Conference semi-final pits the Leamington Flyers against the LaSalle Vipers. Leamington earned a four-game sweep over the Sarnia Legionnaires while the Vipers downed the Chatham Maroons in five games.
Lalama shines, third-period comeback helps Lincs take Game Three
The Lincolns brought a solid effort in Game Three but for the first two periods, their execution didn’t match the effort. Thankfully for the Lincs, goaltender Matteo Lalama was marvellous, stopping 22 of 24 Rockets shots in the first 40 minutes.
Head Coach Jeff Bradley said there were “mixed emotions” about the team’s performance in Game Three.
“Everyone except Matteo wasn’t ready to go, especially in the first period,” Bradley told the Independent. “It wasn’t an effort issue or a ‘want-to-win’ thing, sometimes your brain just isn’t there. It didn’t look like it was there for us before the third. It looked like it was there for Strathroy, they played like they were backed into a corner and they gave us everything we could handle.”
Both teams got on the board with a powerplay goal in the first period, first with Michael Elliston at 5:25 followed by Ethan Facchina tying the game for the Rockets just under six minutes later.
Midway through the second, the Rockets made it two straight games with a shorthanded goal when Dylan Richter capitalized on a St. Marys powerplay breakdown and put Strathroy ahead 2-1.
“When we are in this mode of wanting to win so bad and things don’t go right, there’s a level of frustration,” Bradley explained. “In the second intermission, the message was all about focusing that frustration in the right way. We knew if we got one, we’d put them on their heels and that’s exactly what happened.”
In the third, the more experienced Lincolns stormed back, starting with a 10-second swarming that resulted in a goal by Ethan Lamoureux. Approximately five-and-a-half minutes later, Nathan Small threw the puck in front of the net and a fortuitous bounce saw it hit off the skate of a Rockets’ defender and deflect into the net, putting the Lincs up 3-2.
A stunned and deflated Strathroy side couldn’t find the equalizer, with an empty-netter by Adrian Stubberfield eventually clinching the 4-2 final score and 3-0 series lead. Lalama made 11 more stops in the third. The former Barrie Colt is third among Western Conference goalies in shots against and last week, it was announced that Lalama had committed to play for Wilfred Laurier University next year.
Bradley credited several of his 20-year-old players in leading with their work ethic and determination to get the game back in St. Marys’ favour.
“Guys like Lamoureux, Chantler, Schnittker, Stubberfield, and Lalama of course, they pulled guys into the fight. Those are five 20-year-olds who put the team on their back and it got a lot of the younger guys to step up. That’s what quality leadership can do. Schnittker and Stubberfield played really well. They were effective and they worked their tails off, which is exactly how those guys need to play for us to be successful.”
Lincolns dominate Game Four
Elliston, on a line with Jacob Chantler and Jaden Lee, began a luminescent night for the trio just 52 seconds into the game when the former Rocket banged home a loose puck to go up 1-0. Just under 10 minutes later, a steal by Matt Prendergast caused the Rockets to fall out of position and Michael Elliston fired home his second of the game. Elliston’s natural hat trick was finished off two minutes later when the London native potted another one on the powerplay.
Bradley felt that not only did the team demonstrate a strong ability to remain focused, but that each of his 13 forwards, five defenders, and starting netminder turned in strong performances.
“We didn’t take our foot off the gas pedal and showed a really good killer instinct,” said Bradley. “We started hot and nobody was taking a backseat. Strathroy did a good job trying to get us off our game in the second so it was a good test for us and we did a good job for pretty much a full 60 minutes in handling that test.”
“The powerplay was back to being what we want it to be. The penalty kill continued to be great. I thought everyone played really well and did what we needed them to do in order to win.”
Less than three minutes into the second frame, Lee found his first of two goals in the contest. The game’s next goal wouldn’t come until the dying moments of the middle stanza, with Caden Faulkner scoring to make it 4-1 with 35 seconds left on the clock. The Rockets came out pushing hard in the third, getting another one just 26 seconds into the final period.
However, the Lincolns displayed their mental resolve and weren’t phased by Strathroy’s effort to save their season. Almost exactly 15 minutes after Strathroy cut the deficit to two, Lee finished off a two-on-one to make put the Lincs up by three goals on a feed by Chantler.
Chantler, Elliston, and Lee finished the contest with a combined five goals and 11 points. Chantler, with eight assists in the first round, leads the Lincolns in playoff points, while Elliston leads in the goal column with five.
Perhaps the most excited reaction the Lincolns’ faithful had was on the team’s sixth goal of the game scored by St. Marys’ own Jimmy Schiedel. Not only his first goal of the playoffs, it was also the first goal on home ice in front of his hometown fans for the third-generation Lincoln and put the Lincs on track for the 6-2 final score.
Lincs set to battle Nats in round two
Arguably the Lincolns’ biggest rivalry will be rekindled with their second-round series against the Nationals. According to the St. Marys bench boss, a former Assistant Coach with the Nats, the Lincolns are excited about the heavyweight tilt.
“We’re going up against a really good team so we need to play the way we’re capable of playing. It’s a great challenge for us. There is obviously no lack of motivation for many members of this team. It’s a big city against a small town and the script kind of writes itself.”
“We have to limit our mistakes because London can make you pay every time. We have to be disciplined because their powerplay is among the best in the league. It’s going to be a tough series and there is a lot of pressure but that pressure is a privilege.”
Bradley made it clear that the goal of this series is to earn an opportunity to battle for a Western Conference title.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to look at this as another strong opponent. St. Marys hasn’t been to a conference final in a long time and that’s what this series is about in our eyes. For us, this isn’t about beating London. It’s about doing something great for St. Marys.”
Michael Elliston battles for the puck along the board during last Thursday’s playoff game between the St. Marys Lincolns and Strathroy Rockets. Elliston scored a natural hat-trick in the first period to help the Lincolns take Game Four and sweep the Rockets. (Photo credit: Mike Chennette/McGinny Photography)