Closing out a very workmanlike weekend of hockey with a very workmanlike victory in Sault Ste Marie on the last day of the OHL season, the Sudbury Wolves maximized their potential jump in the Eastern Conference standings.
An overtime win Friday night at home against the Hamilton Bulldogs followed by a solid 5-2 outing opposite the Soo Greyhounds on Sunday afternoon allowed the local juniors to overtake both the Mississauga Steelheads and Hamilton over the course of the last three days, climbing all the way up to fifth place in the conference – and this from a squad that was still battling for their playoff lives as new coach Derek MacKenzie settled into his new role back home during the months of November and December.
It’s become clear to so many that the long-time NHLer and captain of the Florida Panthers has his team playing a style of hockey that should give them at least a fighting chance come the start of their first round series on Thursday.
“We’ve tried to treat the last 15 games as a chance to get comfortable in situations that are going to mimic the playoffs,” said MacKenzie. “We’ve discussed that between periods, learning to close out games – and now we have to put that to the test. In my mind, we’ve played playoff hockey for a long time.”
Certainly, there wasn’t a whole lot to complain about in game sixty-eight of the regular season.
The Wolves jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period in the Sault, getting some encouraging production from their power-play that sits last in the OHL as Nathan Villeneuve got one the hard away, deflecting a Matthew Mania shot off his face and in before Landon McCallum took a pretty feed from Nicholas Yearwood to net his 17th goal of the year.
A fortunate bounce would allow the Greyhounds to get on the board in the second, with Kalvyn Watson potting his 35th - but even an equalizer by defenceman Kirill Kudryatsev on a lovely rush that covered all three zones did not manage to discourage the visitors. Less than twenty seconds after the contest had become deadlocked, Quentin Musty restored the Sudbury advantage, showcasing his laser of a shot through a slight screen in the middle of the slot.
Two and a half minutes later, the nickel city lads made good on the man advantage for the third time this game, with Yearwood deflecting home a pretty pass from David Goyette. Quentin Musty closed out the scoring in the third while overage netminder Kevyn Brassard turned aside 28 shots in picking up the win.
While much of the chatter these past few weeks at the old barn downtown has surrounded whether the Wolves would be facing the North Bay Battalion or Barrie Colts in post-season play, it’s now going to be the Peterborough Petes who provide the first round opposition, with the teams meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 2005-2006.
The match-up would appear to be much more favourable for the locals – though Derek MacKenzie wasn’t about to take the bait. “In many ways, there are three monsters ahead of us in Barrie, Peterborough and North Bay,” he said. “They all made moves at the deadline, preparing for a run. Each one of those presents its own challenges.”
All of which is true, except that the Battalion and the Colts were both seven points or less from hitting the century mark in points this year, with the Petes nearly twenty points back in fourth place – just three points ahead of the Wolves.
Throw in the fact that Sudbury took three of the four head to head battles with Peterborough this year, including a very playoff-like 3-2 triumph at home less than two weeks ago and one would think the Wolves will definitely have a jump in their step when they hop on the ice Thursday night in the Lift Lock City.
As local fans well know, the Wolves have made a pretty good habit of enjoying a better than average opening twenty minutes of play, something that Derek MacKenzie credits to a complete team effort. “We talk a lot about starting on time,” he said. “Our staff put in a lot of work preparing these guys.”
“That starts early in the week, managing rest and finding exactly what works with these guys.”
In the end, it has the Sudbury native who experienced playoff hockey during each and every one of his four years with the team he now coaches, racking up 38 post-season OHL games during that time, chomping at the bit to get started later this week.
“I’m excited for them to get a taste of playoff hockey,” said MacKenzie. “This group is uber-competitive. They’re tough to play against and we are barely ever outworked. They’re just excited to play hockey – and excited to be sticking together for at least the next few weeks.
The Wolves and Petes will kick things off in Peterborough on Thursday, playing game two on Friday before returning for encounters in Sudbury the following Tuesday (April 4th) and Wednesday (April 5th). The if necessary games are set for: Friday April 7th in Peterborough; Sunday April 9th in Sudbury; Tuesday April 11th in Peterborough.