LISTOWEL – There’s two fairly intriguing storylines as the Listowel Cyclones and Elmira Sugar Kings meet in a first-round playoff series starting tonight.
One: it’s a rematch of the 2011 Cherrey Cup final, an eventual six-game victory for the Kings.
Two: it pits Brett Catto, a long-time Cyclone and former team captain, against his old club.
“I kind of knew a couple of weeks ago it might possibly happen, just kind of weird how it all worked out,” said Catto, who was traded to Elmira in January. “This year going head-to-head against guys you played with for two and three years, it’s going to be an experience that’s for sure.”
It’s the third-straight spring the two Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League clubs have met in the Midwestern Conference post-season.
This year Listowel, ranked sixth, is considered a big underdog to the No. 3 Kings.
“We’ve just got to keep it simple and play gritty against them,” noted Listowel’s second-year forward Caleb Cameron, who led his team with 29 goals. “We’ve got to be good in the defensive zone because they’re a skilled team.”
Game 1 of the best-of-seven set goes tonight, Feb. 29, in Elmira. Game 2 is in Listowel on Friday, March 2. Both games start at 7:30 p.m.
Cyclones head coach Dave Williams has been stressing defence at practice the last few weeks because of powerful offensive teams such as Elmira, second in the conference with 240 goals scored.
“We’re going to have to be real good defensively as a five-man unit in front of the goaltender,” Williams said. “They are a real good offensive team. No matter how well we play we’re going to give up some good scoring chances.”
Elmira head coach Dean DeSilva isn’t taking anything for granted despite his team’s strong season of an .804 winning percentage over 51 games played.
“Listowel’s beaten us twice this year, they’re certainly a team that we’re not taking lightly,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for Dave Williams, he’s a coach that makes a lot of changes throughout the game to tweak what he notices other teams doing, whereas a lot of coaches will just stick with one thing.”
Game 3 is March 4 in Elmira and Game 4 is in Listowel on March 6.
Elmira took the season series 4-2 and outscored them 27-19.
On the injury front, DeSilva said his team is completely healthy.
Williams’ contingent is not so fortunate.
Forward Matt Hallaron (head) might play depending on last night’s practice, blueliner Craig Johnson (elbow) is out for a month and Colten Pickett (lower body) is questionable after blocking a shot in Sunday’s regular-season finale in Owen Sound.
Forward Steve Hutchison and defender Brett Brophy will bolster the club as affiliated players from Wingham of the Western Junior C league.
Their leading scorer Aaron Armstrong might suit up for Listowel as well, although he hasn’t committed 100 per cent since Wingham was eliminated by Walkerton just a few days ago.
“I’m optimistic he’ll come play. He had physically a tough series against Walkerton. He’s banged up, and I’m guessing too the emotional drain, when you put that much time trying to win at his own level, when you’re season comes to an end it’s a dejecting thing,” Williams said.
Listowel native Carter Stewart, 16, made his Cyclones debut as an AP from triple-A last weekend and could potentially be called up again for the post-season.
Andrew Smith scored 44 goals for the Kings this season – one of just four GOJHL players to crack 40 – and fronts a lethal five-forward first power-play unit along with Riley Sonnenburg, Brett Preistap, Michael Hasson and Scott Nagy.
As a team they converted 20 per cent of their chances.
“Their number one power play is the one thing we’ve got to watch,” Cameron noted. “I think our key is staying out of the box so they don’t have that power play time like they’d want.”
Listowel finished at 17.7 per cent with the man advantage.
Elmira killed off opposing teams power plays 84 per cent of the time, while Listowel’s penalty kill unit was a shade under 80 per cent.
The Cyclones stumbled through most of February, posting a 1-5 record through the first six games, but atoned for it a bit by winning their final three contests, albeit against Kitchener and Owen Sound, the conference’s worst two squads.
Elmira, who defeated the No. 2 Stratford Cullitons on the final day of the season, are the favourites and have won the previous two head-to-head playoff series, but Cameron pointed out his group were labelled underdogs last year as the fifth-seed and surprised No. 4 Stratford and No. 1 Guelph.
“Last year we were the underdog. I don’t know if we think of that way, but we’ll definitely give it our all,” said Sundridge’s Cameron, who scored 13 goals in 19 post-season games in 2011. “No matter what everyone says (about how) we’re going to go out four straight, we’re going to plug away at it and hope for the best.”
“They’re incredibly deep, built to win, the defending champions, a pretty tall task to try to knock them off,” Williams admitted.
DeSilva, taking over the reigns of the club after Geoff Haddaway led Elmira to a Cherrey Cup and provincial Sutherland Cup title last year, tried to implement a playoff mentality with his players over the last 14 days.
“We really focused the last two weeks on treating everything as a playoff series and four-game series to get our guys into that mentality and preparation,” he explained. “We’ll have an emotional game one night and have to pick it up again the next night, or we’ll have an emotional loss one night and we’ll have to be able to refocus the next night. That’s what playoffs are like.”
The Woolwich Memorial Centre has proven to be a tough building for visiting teams. The Kings lost just four times at home – only three in regulation – but Listowel owns one of those victories.
The Cyclones were just 9-16-1 at Listowel Memorial Arena but, as usual, the opposition is wary of an older facility with some strange bounces and a smaller ice surface.
“Listowel always works hard and that rink is tough to play in, so we have to make sure that we’re ready for them,” DeSilva said.
Expect to see Mount Forest goalie Nick Horrigan (25-9) between the pipes for the Kings.
Being his final year of junior, he’ll be given the chance to lead the club, but if he stumbles the coaching staff has faith in Justin Husak, an 18-year-old from Sioux Lookout.
Both netminders main threats will be Cameron, who led his club with 64 points, second-year forward Jeff Bauer who scored 26 goals and 62 points, and Stratford’s David Dalby, who netted 23 goals.
Patrolling the other crease will be American Michael Pesendorfer.
The rookie went 12-20 with a 4.31 goals against average.
Elmira has a decent number of players leftover from the championship run a year ago, but Listowel lost a number of key players from their march to the final last summer and as this season wore on.
“With the turnover of guys, even for them the turnover is significant enough that I don’t know if that’s the same thing,” Williams said. “The emotions are usually ramped up even more when you get yourself to the final and have had a couple of rounds. Being down 3-1 to Straford, coming back, having to beat the first-seeded team in Guelph, those make the emotions that much more. I think that’s a thing in the past.”
And of course, there’s the Catto factor.
“I’m sure it’s going to be emotional for Brett because he’s got a lot of friends on that Listowel team,” DeSilva said. “He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do as far as bring scoring and depth and experience.”
“The big thing for us is we have to not look at it as a Brett Catto versus the Listowel Cyclones match-up,” Williams said. “Brett was a really good hockey player here for a few seasons. He’s played well since he’s gone to Elmira. The focus has to be more on the Elmira Sugar Kings in general, and Brett happens to be a good piece of that team.”
“Last year was a war from the first puck drop,” said Kincardine’s Catto, 20, skating on a line with Hasson and Brady Campbell at even-strength and a part of the club’s second power-play unit.
“We’re looking forward to playing Catto, he’s a good hockey player. Obviously we want to beat them,” Cameron said.