Dukes-Whitby series begins Thursday; Wellington on Friday.
Afresh season begins. The Wellington Dukes head to Whitby on Thursday evening for the first game in a best of seven series against the Fury. Then back at home for game two in Wellington on Friday night.
But before jumping into the playoff, we must first note the accomplishments of the regular season just ended. Brayden Stortz narrowly missed out on the OJHL scoring championship as Georgetown’s Jack Jerome leapfrogged past in the Raiders’ final game of the season on Saturday. Still, it was a remarkable season for Stortz—leading the league in goals scored at 37.
After scoring 100 points in the NOJHL, it wasn’t clear how well he would perform at that level in the south. But Stortz quickly shattered any doubts that he belonged in the OJHL. He does it with skill, amazing puck handling ability, an astute understanding of the game and plain old hard work.
One example in the final regular season game. The Dukes are killing a power play. Stortz is the lone forward playing high—putting pressure on the forecheck. The puck drifts all the way back to the Whitby end. Stortz charges toward the net at full steam. It seems pointless. The Fury netminder has plenty of time to move the puck. But the speed of oncoming forechecker gives him pause. The netminder bobbles the puck and Stortz is there. The goalie managed to salvage the play, but just barely, preventing a goal, and perhaps the game. All on an otherwise no-risk play—disrupted by a forward who doesn’t quit.
All the more surprising that Stortz doesn’t yet have a NCAA scholarship in hand. Line mate Nic Mucci is not far behind in the points race finishing in fourth. Mucci is set to play for NCAA D1 Niagara University next fall.
Rangy blueliner Hunter Gunski was named the Dukes defensive player of the month for February and has committed to D3 Utica College next season. Forward Rory Milne, after a slow start with the Dukes has been on fire since the end of January—notching five points in a single game against Lindsay in February. Milne was named Wellington’s forward of the month.
Milne, Mitchell Mendonca, Austin Labelle, Jackson Arcan and others have all improved dramatically since the Christmas break—quietly adding dimension to a team that opponents have regarded as a one-line threat.
Dukes coach and GM Marty Abrams says the second, third and fourth lines are essential to success against Whitby.
“Our secondary scoring and contributions from the entire forward group has been outstanding since the New Year,” said Abrams. “I expect and need that to continue in the playoffs if we are to have success as a team.”
But it isn’t necessarily about scoring—but rather about being a persistent threat. The Whitby defence corps are big strong boys. Their forwards are quick. The Dukes must be quicker. And resilient to the punishment along the wall. Most of all, they must be tenacious on the forecheck. If the Fury are allowed to settle into their game, Ryan Heeps et al will make short work of Wellington.
“For us to win, we will need everyone playing their A game for 60 minutes, each and every shift,” said Abrams. “Our defence and goaltending has been a pillar of strength for us all season and they will be tested in this series against a fast Whitby team.”
The early games in this series will be important barometers. It will answer key questions. Can the Dukes maintain their composure in the battles for the puck along the wall? Can they escape the clutches of towering defencemen without tacking on a retaliatory slash?
“We need to play very solid in our own end and limit turnovers,” says Abrams. “Whitby is a very offensive-minded team that will make you pay if you’re not sharp defensively. Discipline will play a role, too, as the Whitby power play is very effective.”
The longer this series goes along, the more it dips in the Dukes favour. Wouldn’t it be great to face the Trenton Golden Hawks in the second round? Wouldn’t that be a series?
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The Dukes welcome Whitby for game two of the best of seven series on Friday night in Wellington.