There will certainly be no lack of familiarity on the ice Friday night when the Saugeen Shores Winterhawks begin the quest for their fifth championship in 10 seasons.
The Winterhawks will open the W.O.A.A. Sr. AA playoffs with a best-of-seven quarterfinal series against the Durham Thundercats, a team they know well.
The Winterhawks and Thundercats met four times last season, followed by a gruelling six-game playoff series that saw the Winterhawks emerge victorious, and while they only faced off twice this season, both meetings occurred within the last three weeks.
“We pretty well know what to expect from them,” said Head Coach Jim Grieve. “They have a good defence, good goaltending and opportunistic scoring, so we have to be prepared to play.”
The Winterhawks enter the series on a winning note, winning their final three games of the regular season by a combined margin of 18-4, including two 6-1 victories over Durham.
The Winterhawks finished with a league-best 18-1-1 record, while Durham finished as the 8th-seed, with a record of 11-8-1.
“We’re at the point where we’re happy with the way we’re conducting our game and looking after our own end,” said Grieve. “Usually when you do that, the offence takes care of itself.”
Those words ring true for this edition of the Winterhawks, who were the league’s least-generous defence by a wide margin, giving up just 42 goals in 20 games, while falling just one goal short of matching the Tavistock Royals’ league-leading 115 goals scored.
The Thundercats also possess a formidable offensive attack, one of just five teams in the league to break the century mark in goals scored this season, finding the back of the net 105 times this season. However, they were less successful keeping the puck out of their own net, giving up 98 goals against, ranking 10th in the league in that category.
The Winterhawks have tough decisions to make in goal, as both veteran Blake Sinclair and rookie Jeff Flagler made good arguments for playing time in the playoffs.
Flagler posted a league-best 1.88 goals-against average in his rookie season, to go along with a 10-0-1 record, while Sinclair was 9-1-0 with a 2.22 G.A.A., the second-best mark in the league.
Grieve indicated both will be given a chance to show what they can do in the playoffs.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll split the duties as we go forward here, you can’t really pick between the two of them, they’re both playing very well,” said Grieve. “We’ll give them both a shot here at the start [of the playoffs] and see where we end up.”
Health-wise, Grieve declined to comment on the status of players who sat out recently due to injuries, but pointed out the Winterhawks will have a full bench and healthy scratches on the sidelines when the puck drops on Friday night.
“We’re pretty healthy, we have bumps and bruises, like everybody else,” said Grieve. “We’re healthy enough.”
The Winterhawks will lean on a balanced attack in the series, with eight players on the playoff roster posting at least a point-per-game pace in the regular season, lead by co-leading scorers Bryan Kazarian and Curtis Johnston, who each finished with 28 points.
Durham’s attack is lead by the dangerous Randy Cox, who was near the top of the league scoring race for much of the season, though it’s worth pointing out Cox missed the Thundercats final four games of the regular season. Still, Cox finished with 38 points in 16 games.
Durham will also lean on rookie Trevor Hughson, sophomore Chris Brown and veteran Bill Terpstra to lead their attack. On the back-end, the brother combination of Jeff and Keith MacMillan, along with Kyler Nixon will log big minutes.
Gatlin Burt and Scott Kuglin split the duties in goal this season, with Burt posting a 5-3-1 record with a 4.83 G.A.A., while Kuglin was 6-4-0 with a 4.69 G.A.A.
Elsewhere on the “AA” side, the #2 Mapleton-Minto 81’s face the #7 Tillsonburg Thunder, the #3 Petrolia Squires draw the #6 Ripley Wolves and the defending champion Clinton Radars slot in with the #4 seed and a date with #5 Tavistock Royals.
The series opens on Friday with Game 1 in Port Elgin at 8:30 p.m.