By Matt Mackinder –
In perhaps the understatement of the year, the Plymouth Whalers are on a roll.
Finishing the regular season on an eight-game winning streak and winning 16 of their last 17 games has the Whalers entering the Ontario Hockey League playoffs with momentum.
With the Sarnia Sting on tap in the opening round, which gets underway this Friday, the players are gearing up for what they hope is a long playoff run this year.
“I’d say we’re happy with how our season progressed,” Plymouth captain Colin MacDonald said. “We obviously wish we could have finished first (overall), but we’re happy with the hockey we are playing right now. Going into playoffs, you want to be playing well and since Christmas, we have been a completely different team and it shows with our record (26-5-0-1 since Dec. 27).”
The Whalers won the West Division for the second year in a row and 11th time in franchise history and finished second in the Western Conference to the powerhouse London Knights, who face the Saginaw Spirit in the first round.
Perhaps no two players helped get the Whalers to this point in the season more than forward Vince Trocheck, acquired at the OHL trade deadline from Saginaw, and rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic.
Trocheck won the OHL scoring title and Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy with 50 goals and 59 assists for 109 points (59 of those in 28 games withPlymouth) and became the first Plymouth player in 10 years to score 50 goals after Chad LaRose tallied 61 in 2002-03.
Nedeljkovic, who won the F.W. “Dinty” Moore Trophy as the rookie goalie with the lowest goals-against average (2.28), finished the year 19-2-1-1 with two shutouts and a .923 save percentage.
“To me, playing in the net isn’t something that I feel is stressful – it’s enjoyable,” Nedeljkovic said. “There are times when we have as many games in as many nights, but that just makes playing the game that much more fun. Being able to play in front of a crowd cheering you on is exactly what I had always thought it would be like. I try not to think of myself as being the No. 1 goalie. I instead think of it as my time in the net and how much time I spend in the net depends on how well I am doing.
“Having a seasoned veteran like Matt (Mahalak) has been crucial in my development this year as he has shared some great advice along with our goalie coach, Stan Matwijiw. I consider myself to be very fortunate.”
As for Trocheck, his acquisition has been nothing short of a boon.
“Since Trocheck came, we have been playing really well,” said MacDonald. “He was a good addition to our team and is a great teammate on and off the ice. He’s provided more depth to our team, which definitely helps when it comes to playoffs. He’s an exceptional player who wants to win games and be a team player.”
“I felt like our regular season was a little slow to start, but we finished strong,” added Plymouth forward Stefan Noesen. “Getting ‘Tro’ was huge for us. I felt we were still trying to find a missing piece before he got here and then once we acquired him and (Sebastian) Uvira (from Oshawa), I felt that we became a contending team.”
Seeing Trocheck eclipse Sarnia’s Charles Sarault for the scoring title was a highlight of the season, according to Nedeljkovic.
“Vince was in the race for the scoring title when he came to the team and I think that was what really brought the team together,” said Nedeljkovic. “We all want to see ourselves achieve success, but we wanted to see Vince achieve the scoring title more than anything the past couple of weeks of the season. When he got his 109th point of the season (on the final day of the regular season March 17 in Windsor), nobody cheered and yelled louder than the team.”
Last year, Plymouth had a stacked team going into the post-season, but came up short, losing to Kitchener in the second round in a Game 7 at home. The players remember that feeling and will do whatever it takes to avoid that outcome this spring.
“Coming into playoffs against Sarnia, we’re expecting a tough series,” said MacDonald. “They’re a close division rival and we see them six times a year before playoffs, so I think we know what to expect and are going to be ready for a hard-fought series. Anything can happen in playoffs and were going to have to be the harder working team and win all the battles to win games.
“Last year was definitely a disappointment because of the team we had and I think it’s stuck with all the guys who were a part of that team, which will help us. None of us want that to happen again. All I can do is try and be a leader and play my role within the team. That’s what everyone has to do and to win in playoffs, you need everyone contributing and playing their role.”
“It’s going to be a hard-fought battle,” added Noesen. “They have a few good players on their team that could give us trouble, but I feel like we are up for the challenge.
“Our team is rolling right now and I feel that we are going to continue it into the playoffs.”
PLYMOUTH (2) vs. SARNIA (7)
Friday, March 22 at Plymouth, 7 p.m.
Saturday, March 23 at Plymouth, 7 p.m.
Monday, March 25 at Sarnia,7 p.m.
Wednesday, March 27 at Sarnia,7 p.m.
Friday, March 29 at Plymouth, 7 p.m. *
Saturday, March 30 at Sarnia,7 p.m.*
Tuesday, April 2 at Plymouth, 7 p.m. *