The Nickel City Minor Peewee "AAA" Sons are a team of reversing fortunes.
The Sons were 0-4 at the NOHL Showcase last September, outscored 21-5 over the course of four games. By the time that Halloween rolled around, the Nickel City lads were locked in a battle for last place, their record of 2-12-1 showing signs of a still struggling team.
But as the March break kicked off on Monday, the local grade sixers find themselves just one game away from sending the Soo Jr Greyhounds to the sidelines. That would be the 22-1-5 Greyhounds that the Sons have forced to a fifth and deciding game in their best of five semi-final, with both teams recording a pair of victories on home ice.
That's a far cry from what head coach Jay Lagadin and his staff observed just over six months ago. "I believe in a fast skating, puck moving team, starting from the back end," said Lagadin last Thursday, just days before his team swept aside the Hounds by scores of 4-2 and 3-0 at the T.M. Davies Community Centre this past weekend.
"This team had limited abilities in moving the puck. We had to break it right down, from the beginning, starting with knowing not only when to pass the puck and why to pass the puck, but also how to pass the puck as well."
"At the Showcase, we realized that our team was the least aggressive in the league," Lagadin added. "It was a great weekend to help show us where we needed to improve." Thankfully, there was a distinct vision, an ability to accurately communicate to a group of 12 year olds the specifics of what can often become overused hockey mantras.
Take the need for more aggressiveness, for example. Even at an age when body checking is penalized, it's easy for players to transition the instructions "to be more aggressive" into an endless pathway to the penalty box, not understanding that increased aggressiveness and slamming an opponent into the boards are not necessarily one and the same.
"It's about forechecking with authority, going in hard and fast, going to the player and through the stick, and don't stop two feet short and poke," explained Lagadin. Above all else, he and his staff are thrilled with the identity their team has created.
"I would like to think that since the start of the year, we have been known as a hard working team," he said. "The effort level has been through the roof. It's been fantastic." Truth be told, there was little to no certainty this day would arrive, that the improvement would be quite this notable.
"I remember our first "AAA" tournament down south, we didn't know what to expect, the fear factor was there," recalled Lagadin. "We watched the game before ours and I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. It turns out we beat one of those teams and had a one goal game with the other, just through hard work."
While it takes an entire team effort to turn the tables on back to back setbacks in Sault Ste Marie to start the semi-finals (2-1 and 6-1), some individuals have clearly seized the moment. "To me, it all begins with our captain, Tony Bertrand," said Lagadin.
"He typifies what a captain should be - a quiet leader, but he talks when he has to. What he does on the ice speaks for itself." After picking up a pair of assists on Saturday, Bertrand added some insurance to a mid-game ice-breaker from Liam Nootchtai on Sunday, with the latter icing the contest with an empty-net goal with just over a minute to play.
A team that struggled to find the back of the net, early in the 2018-2019 campaign, would finish the season with eight players reaching double digits in scoring, including Nolan Schiewek (team leader in assists), Matti Jouppi (scored twice on Saturday) and Corey Lacroix ("he does everything for me, covering the other team's top guy and being all over the ice").
Also cracking the ten-point plateau were Will Mackey (18), Lucas Dubois (15) and Karsen Deschenes (13), while the Sons defence corps gradually rounded into the type of unit that could throw a playoff blanket over a team that averaged just under five goals per game in the regular season.
"At the beginning of the year, we relied on Blake Cole a lot, because he's our best rushing defenceman," said Lagadin. "But our other defencemen gradually grew into their roles. Once they got the confidence to carry the puck, they really shone."
"It's been a pleasure to watch them grow as a unit."
On Sunday, however, it was goaltender Jacob Bradley who grabbed the spotlight, posting a 29-save shutout performance as the Greyhounds outshot the Sons 29-13. "They move the puck way better than other teams in our league, and they shoot the puck harder," acknowledged the grade six student at Walden Public School, who first strapped on the pads just four years ago when a three-on-three team needed someone to step up and tackle the position.
"I went in and just really liked it," he said. "I think I move well, track the puck well and stuff." As for this particular effort, Bradley was a tad understated. "It wasn't my best, because I had other games that I played better," he said. "But I didn't let in any goals."
Win or lose Wednesday in Sault Ste Marie, the Nickel City Minor Peewee "AAA" Sons will hold their heads high, having accomplished a fairly dramatic about-face over the course of their first season of "AAA" hockey.
Rounding out the team roster, this year, are Wesly Richer (Freeland), Cameron Seguin, Seth Lagadin, Rowan Smith, Joshua Cholette, Justin MacLeod and A.J. Dubeau.
Working alongside as members of the team staff were Ryan Lacroix, Sylvain Ouellet, Ben Lagadin, Cory Schiewek, team trainer/manager Jake Jouppi and assistant trainer Riley Roy.