Junior B Valley champions.
The Packers claimed the Upper Ottawa Valley Division playoff trophy on March 14, but opted to leave it along the boards – not wanting to touch it for fear of bad luck in their next series with Metro Division champion Gatineau Mustangs. Instead, holding the championship banner areTaylor Collins, captain Ryan Eady, Eastern Ontario Hockey League commissioner Dwaine Barkley, Shane Smith, and Casey Doner.
It was a hard-fought series, but the Arnprior Packers came away with a solid 4-1 win over Perth in Junior B hockey action at home on March 14, clinching its first Valley title since 1998.
The win moves Arnprior on to play Metro Division winner Gatineau Mustangs in a best-of-seven series that starts in Arnprior at the Nick Smith Centre this Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
Gatineau, the regular season Metro champion, was taken to seven games by third-place Ottawa West, winning game seven 3-1 last Friday.
Despite lopsided scores in games one and three, the teams were fairly evenly matched. The Blue Wings finished second behind the Packers in regular season play, but gained almost as many points after the Christmas break. They were a hard-hitting team that could have slowed the speedy Packers down, if not for the latter’s tenacity.
“It was a tough series,” said Packers coach Bill Griese.
“Speed is always a factor with us. But you have to continue it all game. If not, they get energized from the physical play. That’s why you have to use it for 60 minutes straight.”
Coming into game five in Arnprior behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, Perth gave the Packers all they could handle.
The Packers worked the puck up ice along both walls, but that compromised quality scoring opportunities. Frustrated hometown fans after the end of the second period said Arnprior was getting plenty of shots, but that they were from poor angles.
The teams went into the third with Arnprior up 1-0, thanks to a first-period goal by defenceman Jake Primeau. The crowd, while a large one with about 80 per cent of the stands filled, was quiet – almost nervous.
That’s when the game opened up, thanks to the play of Casey Doner and others. Doner has gone from sitting out due to a spinal injury to becoming one of the best players in the league.
“Casey Doner is playing his best hockey,” Griese said. “He has asserted himself as one of the best centres in our league.”
Goals came quickly in the third: Matt Crozier’s eventual game winner was assisted by Doner. After Perth’s top playoff scorer, Blair Barr, had brought his team back to within a goal, Primeau restored Arnprior’s two-goal lead with his second of the night, with assists from Doner and the Packers’ leading playoff scorer Derrin Lehoux.
Taylor Collins clinched the win, and the club’s Valley title, with his team-leading seven playoff goal in the empty net. Ryan Eady and Mitch Parker earned assists.
Packers captain Eady and others who accepted the cup afterward refused to make a big deal of it, upholding a tradition that says its bad luck to touch cup that is more of a stepping stone on the way to the next playoff round.
Outside the dressing room after the game, Eady, one of the team’s elder statesmen, said the Valley title has been a long time in the making.
“It means a lot. I’ve been working at this for, what, three years to do it,” Eady said.
“I’d give a shout out to Shane Smith (the league’s outstanding defenseman) and all our defence. Matt (Couvrette) and Mike (Cheslock) – you can’t win without goaltending, right? Taylor Collins. Our coaches. And our trainer – Eric Talbot. He does an amazing job.”
Eady’s convinced the team’s speed and forecheck pressure are what finally broke Perth. The question is whether or not the same strategy will carry them through the next series to crown a Metro-Valley title champion. The winner will face off with the winner of the Casselman-Athens series that will determine the St. Lawrence-Rideau champion. (Casselman won the first game 3-2 in overtime.)
While Griese is not giving anything away, he did say specialty teams are something he planned to work on over the weekend in the lead-up to Tuesday’s first game against Gatineau.
Arnprior will have to find away to keep Gatineau star Nicolas Belleville off the scoresheet. His seven goals and 18 assists in 12 games lead the league playoff scoring, eight ahead of Winchester’s Dylan Chessell and Perth’s Blair Barr.
Leading the Packers in playoff scoring are Lehoux with 5 goals and 11 assists, Collins 7-8, Primeau 4-7 assists, Derek Lowry 3-8, Parker Davis 4-6, Mitch Parker 2-8, Teddy Suckow 5-3 and Eady 2-6.
Game two of the Packer-Mustangs series will be held Wednesday at 8 p.m. in Gatineau, with game three set for Arnprior this Friday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m. If the series goes past four games, Arnprior will host game 5 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 28. Game seven, if necessary, will be played in Arnprior at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 1. Gatineau hosts games this weekend on a date yet to be announced and Friday, March 30 if necessary.