Dukes magnificent in defeat
It was just out of reach. By the smallest of measures. A better bounce in game one and a goalpost in game five are all that stood in the way of the Wellington Dukes perhaps leading the NorthEast Conference semifinals. Perhaps. It was that close. Nothing at all about the four games to one by which the Cobourg Cougars pushed the Wellington Dukes out of the playoffs defined this series. Cobourg was just a little bit better, a little longer. The smallest of measures.
The top five players on the ice in this series were lined up on the Dukes side. Connor Ryckman in net. Brayden Stortz and Nic Mucci on the top line. Carter Allen on defence. The biggest hearts were on Wellington’s side too—Colin Doyle, Austin Labelle, Brody Morris and Justin Bean. And Hunter Gunski—with his broken jaw wired shut, the fearless defender threw himself down in front of slapshot in game five. Words escape me.
Yet it wasn’t enough—but it was so very close.
It might have been over in game four. The Cougars had a three-game lead in the bestof- seven series. Lesser teams have wilted against these odds. Not the Dukes.
Using superior size and weight, Cobourg did an effective job of working the puck deep into the Wellington zone and keeping it there. But Ryckman was sensational—athletic and razor-sharp instincts about where the puck was and where he needed to be.
Meanwhile, as the Cougars trained their focus on Stortz and Mucci, more ice opened up for others. Midway through the first period in Wellington, Allen suddenly saw open ice up the right wing. He crossed the blueline and released a terrifying blast. The Cobourg netminder, Stefano Durante, was lucky just to touch the puck as it sailed past him into net.
Again Cobourg pressed. But once again the Dukes capitalized on their chances as Rory Milne scored giving the Dukes a 2-0 lead. Cobourg scored on the power play to draw within a goal early in the second. But Mitchell Martan re-established the two-goal lead on a Dukes’ power play later in the period.
The Cougars continued to come hard. But the Dukes withstood the pressure. That is until Cobourg scored with just under five minutes remaining in the game. That was how long the hometown crowd had to hold its breath. They had seen a 3-1 lead evaporate earlier in this series.
And while there was plenty of drama in those five minutes, the Dukes weathered the onslaught. Once again Ryckman earned the player of the game honours.
That set up game five in Cobourg on Saturday night. A large, and noticeably louder, contingent of Wellington fans made the trip to support their team.
Once again it was Allen getting the Dukes off to a positive start early in the game—scoring unassisted. Cobourg would not give him that much ice again. The Cougars tied the game later in the first. The game featured a lot of penalties, but both sides had managed an effective penalty-killing ability.
A breakdown, however, by the Dukes in the second period while killing a penalty, cost Wellington as the Cobourg winger skated through the neutral zone and into Dukes territory unaccosted. His shot beat Ryckman far side. A couple minutes later Cobourg scored again. Now with a 3-1 lead. Late in the second Labelle appeared to have scored for the Dukes, but it was waved off, ruled that it had hit the post. This was tough. Here again, a lesser team might have folded.
But the Dukes came out in the third determined to win. It was desperate hockey. Young, beaten bodies finding inner reserves to carry the play to the Cougars. They had the home team back on its heels. Only a tiresome rink announcer, and a fool with a megaphone, failed to realize their team was in trouble.
The Dukes worked the puck low. Out to Morris. In to Stortz. Over to Doyle moving west to east in the Cobourg crease. A kick of the puck to his stick and Doyle slid it past the netminder. It was 3-2. The Dukes fans went nuts. The megaphone went silent.
From then on the Dukes sent wave after wave of attackers into the Cobourg zone—very nearly earning the equalizer on a few occasions. But with four players deep, Cobourg sprung lose and scored. Still, there was three minutes left in the game. Still time.
With just over two minutes remaining in the game, the Dukes pulled Ryckman. But the offensive surge had only just begun when the referees intervened, sending Morris and Doyle to the dressing room. That was it. There was nothing left.
The players shook hands. Their faces marked with emotion. They lingered on the ice for a time—longer than is likely the norm in another team’s rink. But the Dukes wanted to salute their fans—to say thank you. For some to say good bye.
They left the ice to a loud and appreciative cheer. Maple cans echoing throughout the Cobourg community centre. Until next season.