Generally, Northern Ontario teams entering the Toronto Marlboros International Holiday Classic do so with a goal to try and make it through round-robin play, advancing to the Conference quarter-finals. While this goal is not often achieved, the Onaping Falls Huskies were able to do just that before falling to tournament semi-finalist North York Rangers in playoff action earlier this week.
With 50 teams vying for just sixteen playoff slots, it's easy to see why the coveted births are such a enviable goal. Add to this the fact that the Marlies event consistently draws not only a gathering of much of the North American Bantam elite but also countless OHL scouts and one gets a sense of the accomplishment that is made.
The Huskies would open tournament play on a high, looking solid in a 4-1 win over the Grey-Bruce Highlanders, the team many expected to challenge for the divisional crown. Nick Esposto paced Onaping with a pair of goals while Jamie Haines and Jordan Carroll added a goal apiece.
The Huskies made it two straight with a 1-0 whitewashing of the Buffalo Regals as goaltender Matt Comber backstopped the locals with a shutout. Haines scored the game's only goal with his second in as many games. Down 2-1 early in the third period against the Wexford Raiders, coach Dave Berthelot's crew rallied with a pair of third period goals with Justin Sutherland netting the game-winner with 4:35 remaining.
The work of the Rayside graduate did not go unnoticed by the coaching staff. "That was the best hockey that Justin Sutherland has played for us this year - he had a really good tournament" noted Berthelot. Nathan Beer and Jamie Haines accounted for the remaining markers as the Huskies improved to 3-0, guaranteeing themselves a playoff spot.
Unfortunately, the team relaxed ever so slightly and found themselves down 4-1 to the Clarington Toros early in the third period of their final preliminary round game. But goals from Sutherland, Stephane Demore and Chris Chaput with the game equalizer in the final minute lifted Onaping to a 4-4 tie with the Toros. The draw proved costly as Demore was nailed for a checking to the head major as Berthelot lost the spirited forward for the remainder of the tournament.
"We had to face North York who hadn't played in about 24 hours and we had just finished some three hours earlier - we came out a little flat and they jumped all over us" said Berthelot of the quarter-final encounter with the Rangers. After falling behind 4-0, the Huskies rebounded on a goal from Sutherland and were starting to carry the play, according to Berthelot, when talented forward Jamie Haines was injured on another head-checking major.
"He was taken off on a stretcher and that pretty well took the wind out of our sails" explained Berthelot, who added that the Valley East native is doing much better upon his return to Sudbury and will likely be sidelined between 7-10 days. Despite the lobsided playoff setback, the animated Onaping bench boss was more than a little pleased with his team's performance.
"That's the best we've ever done at this tournament...the first time we've gone undefeated in round-robin play" acknowledged Berthelot. This year's event marked the fifth consecutive year that the Onaping Falls Huskies have travelled to Toronto after Christmas to take part in the well-known tournament. The Huskies, currently deadlocked for the NOBHL lead with the Sault Thunder, travel to the Lock City when they resume league play on January 14th.
For the remaining local entry at the Marlies Classic, goal scoring was at a premium as the Sudbury Wolves "AAA" Bantams suffered three consecutive shutouts after opening tournament play with a 2-2 tie with Ajax-Pickering Raiders. The Wolves could not find the net in consecutive losses to Dallas Alliance Bulldogs (5-0), Brantford 99ers (3-0) and Mississauga Rebels (7-0).
Not surprisingly, the tournament provided a rematch for the two teams many consider to be the provincial Bantam elite as the Mississauga Ice Dogs edged the Brampton Battalion 3-2 to capture gold. The tables were turned just two months ago as the same two teams met for the Bantam crown at the Big Nickel Hockey Tournament, with the Battalion receiving outstanding netminding in a 3-2 win in early November. The Ice Dogs carry much of the same roster that garnered the All-Ontario Peewee crown which was hosted in Sudbury back in 2004.