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Five days of great action for Great North League faithful
2024-03-26
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The Timmins U18 AAA Majors are likely to enter the U18 AAA Central Regional Championship next month in Sault Ste Marie as something of a longshot.

Ranked 48th in the province (based on the highly unofficial My Hockey rankings), exactly one spot ahead of the host Soo Jr Greyhounds, the recently crowned NOHA and Great North U18 AAA League champs are going to face a steady stream of top ten talent from the GTHL, the Alliance and OMHA at the qualifier to the Telus Cup.

That, of course, matters little to fans of the GNML that flocked to the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex to witness a never-ending series of nail-biters on playoff weekend. Folks were treated to a 13 game set that included four ties, five games decided by a single goal (including both semi-finals and the final) and three more outings with a two-goal margin.

In fact, the largest score differential came in the opening game of the playdowns, a 4-1 win for the Sudbury U18 AAA Wolves over the Soo Jr Greyhounds, with Jackson Culin nailing an empty-net tally to put that contest to bed.

The U18 AAA Wolves were one of three teams to finish round robin play at 2-1-1 (along with with Jr Greyhounds and Majors), joined in the final four by the Sudbury U16 AAA Wolves at 0-1-3.

Unfortunately for coach Brian Dickinson and company (U18 AAA Wolves), their only two setbacks of the weekend were eerily similar: a 2-1 loss to Timmins on Thursday evening and a second loss by the identical score in the championship affair Sunday morning.

The teams traded first period goals in the latter, with Tannen Isenhoff breaking the ice for Timmins and Cameron Vehkala getting that one back for Sudbury 69 seconds later. That was all the scoring until league MVP Ian Lachance would lift the Majors to their first league title in 23 years, converting with under three minutes to play to avoid overtime for a second straight game.

“Coming into the weekend, we knew that it was going to be tight,” noted Timmins assistant coach Shawn McArthur, back behind the bench alongside Steve Polyblank (head coach) after an absence of three years.

“Special teams, defensive hockey and goaltending is what wins championships – and we got all three this week,” added McArthur, who could not have asked for a much better Sunday as son Kaeden netted a goal and two helpers later in the day, helping the Timmins Rock to a 6-0 win over the Iroquois Falls Storm and a 2-0 series lead in their NOJHL first round set.

“We talked about our special teams; we prepared our special teams,” added McArthur. “Our penalty kill was phenomenal.”

In fact, the unit was flawless through round robin play, boasting a 100% efficiency rating and adding a game-changing kill in the final when Iserhoff was assessed a five minute major midway through the third period.

Minutes later, Lachance converted on assists from Travis Poan and Ethan Etheridge for the win, with goaltender Alex Hall racking up his fourth win between the pipes. “We’re a resilient team,” noted McArthur. “Every bit of adversity, every loss, we drew from kit.”

The Majors actually trailed the Jr Greyhounds 3-0 at the game’s midway point the previous day before receiving goals from five different players, including the OT winner from Jacob Drobny, to make their way to the final.

“Even when we were down 3-0, we had no panic,” said McArthur. “There was no panic on the bench. The boys trusted the process. If that was back in October, we probably lose that game 8-0 or 9-0. But everything we’ve been through this year has just prepared us for these situations and how to handle them.”

The remaining semi-final was equally as wild, the U18 AAA Wolves increasing their lead to 5-2 when Bryden Shank buried his second marker of the final stanza with just over six minutes to play. But counters by Drake Taylor and Kaden Wicklander 30 seconds apart less than two minutes later would make things more than interesting coming home – which kind of was the theme from start to finish of this event.

The tone may have been set late Wednesday afternoon when Sudbury U18 AAA Wolves captain Aleksander Duguay opened the scoring just 16 seconds after the drop of the opening puck – and likely less than five minutes or so following a rousing pre-game speech from former team captain Tommy Vlahos.

“He sure got the boys fired up before the game,” noted Duguay after their 4-1 win over the Soo. “We came out hot because of it. I don’t recall a ton about the goal. It was really quick, pretty much off adrenaline to start the game.”

Bryden Shank and Jackson Culin, with a pair, joined Duguay on the scoresheet in game one, with Griffin Albert answering for the Hounds in a losing cause.

The Sudbury U16 AAA Wolves served notice of what their weekend would look like the next morning, playing to a 3-3 tie with their SMHA brethren before adding to the “T” column with sister-kissers against both New Liskeard (3-3) and Timmins (1-1).

Mason Walker, Jameson Fabbro and Denver Mulligan scored in the deadlock with the U18 Wolves, the latter receiving a pair of goals from Keynan Kydd and another from Carter Drigo.

As for the Majors, it will be more of the same when they travel to Sault Ste Marie to take part in the all-Ontario matchups from April 8th to the 14th.

“Nothing is going to change going into Regionals,” said McArthur. “We know who were are and we know what we can do. I don’t know that I’ve ever coached a team with 20 kids who were so tight. They really care for each other and play for each other.”

And for the past five days or so, they, like the four other GNML teams on hand, played for an arena-full of fans, keeping them on the edge of their seats from start to finish.

Hard to ask for much more.

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