By Josh Howald
The road to the Schmalz Cup came to an end for the Wingham Ironmen last Tuesday night in Essex.
The Essex 73`s punched their ticket to the provincial Junior C finals with a 3-2 win at home in Game 6 of the Schmalz Cup semi-finals against Wingham. With the exception of Game 2, every contest in this series was close, and the sixth one was no exception. Three of the five goals in the deciding game came shorthanded, while the other two were on power play opportunities.
Down 3-2 in the series, playing for their playoff lives, the Ironmen surprised everyone by starting Nathan Watson in goal. It was the first start of the postseason for Watson, an 18-year-old affiliate from Brussels who appeared in just seven regular season games for Wingham. The Ironmen had been getting good, if not great, goaltending from Ben Nelson, and in his relief, Jaden Shrier.
Watson kept his team in this game in the early going. Essex came out flying, and Watson kept this game scoreless, making 19 saves in the first period alone. He had 40 stops by the time the night had ended.
But the Great Lakes Junior C champions finally solved him with back-to-back shorthanded goals to take a 2-0 lead in the second period. Dylan Solecki and Matthew Hebert did the damage for Essex, followed closely by a power play goal by Scott Bromley that made it 3-0 at the second intermission. Wingham captain Aaron Armstrong put his team back in the game with a shorthanded goal of his own, and then set up Justin Jacklin with about four minutes remaining to make for an exciting finish, but nothing more. The Western Junior C champions couldn't score an equalizer to force a seventh game.
Essex will now play the Lakefield Chiefs for the Schmalz Cup provincial championship. The Chiefs, best of the Central Junior C League, swept the Grimsby PeachKings of the Niagara Junior C League in four straight games. The Chiefs edged out Grimsby 2-1 in Game 4 of that series on Friday night. Game 1 of the Schmalz Cup will be played Saturday evening in Lakefield. Game 2 is Sunday, also in Lakefield. Games 3 and 4 will go April 26 and April 27 in Essex. The Chiefs, who knocked out last year's Schmalz Cup champs from Picton along the way, won the coin flip and will have home ice in this series. If it lasts seven, the rubber match will be played in Lakefield on May 4.
While Essex and Lakefield square off, the Ironmen are left to reflect on a solid playoff run. The Ironmen accomplished what the Walkerton Hawks failed to do in six straight attempts - defeat the Georgian Bay Mid-Ontario League champions and move on to the semi-finals of the Schmalz Cup.
Wingham finished first overall in the Western League with a 26-6-2 record, which earned them an opening round bye. The Hanover Barons upset the Mount Forest Patriots in the opening round in a seven-game battle, but were no match for the Ironmen in the semi-finals. Hanover was never in that series for a moment, with Wingham sweeping the Barons in four games and outscoring the last place club 37-8. The Walkerton Hawks knocked off the Nicol Insurance Kincardine Bulldogs in a wild, high scoring six game series to advance to the league final against Wingham. The series was a good one, with Wingham winning Game 7 in front of an appreciative home crowd at the Wescast Community Complex. The Ironmen then knocked off the Penetang Kings in six games, coming from behind to win in three of their four victories.
Armstrong, last year's OHA Player of the Year and holder of the all-time Western League scoring record, exited the Schmalz Cup as the leading scorer. He had nine goals and 21 points in 11 Schmalz Cup games, and another 31 points in the Western Junior C playoffs. Not to mention his league high 104 regular season points in 34 games. Obviously, he was named the league's Most Valuable Player. But he had help. Jamie Huber, a 16-year-old rookie, tallied 41 goals and 82 points during the regular season, and had another 13 goals and 16 assists on this playoff run. The Western League's Rookie of the Year was selected by North Bay in the OHL Priority Selection two weeks ago. Ripley's Greg Scott registered one assist on Wingham's run, and was a steady, calming influence on the Ironmen blue line. Though not in the top-four, he ate up some important minutes for this strong Wingham team.
The Independent will continue to bring you Schmalz Cup updates as the 73's and Chiefs play to determine a provincial champion.