The Norwich Merchants and New Hamburg Firebirds will meet one another in the PJHL Doherty Division playoffs
Norwich Merchants Derek Slaght tries to keep Paris Mounties Cole Corriveau for knocking the puck away from him in Norwich, Ont. earlier this season. The New Hamburg Firebirds and Norwich Merchants meet in the first round of the playoffs starting Friday. (Greg Colgan/Woodstock Sentinel-Review/Postmedia Network)
When junior hockey playoffs begin there’s the usual occurrences people can expect.
Tight defensive games, more checking, every goal counting and a Norwich Merchants and New Hamburg Firebirds series.
The two teams are endlessly linked when it comes to the playoffs, with them meeting one another for the sixth time in the last seven years. The Firebirds swept the Merchants in last years first round of the playoffs, with Norwich ranked seventh and New Hamburg second, but this year the two teams are closer in the standings after New Hamburg won the fourth spot on the final game of the season.
“I’ve heard rumblings in practice about last year, so that’s motivation for the guys from last year,” Norwich head coach Brad Wilkins said in a phone interview. “I hope they can generate motivation from that and be ready to go.
“It’s going to be such a close series. It’ll come down to who brings the effort every night and who executes on their chances,” he added. “There’s not a lot of holes on either side. It can come down to matchups. I feel we’ve played really good against them all year.”
The Merchants enter the series as one of the hottest team’s in the Provincial Junior Hockey League’s Doherty Division, having won nine of their last 11 games. Wilkins said after injuries forced constant changes to lines, a healthy team has led to regular line combinations over their winning stretch that saw them go from seventh to fifth in the standings and nearly push for third.
“We stuck with the same lines the last six weeks and it’s really impacted our consistency. All lines have developed good chemistry, which has led to success on all lines. We can rely on all of them,” he said.
“From out standpoint, we looked at what every player can do and divvied up players with playmaking skills like shooting and passing, but you’ve also go to have grit on every line,” he added. “Ever since we combined those lines, the guys are getting better chemistry with each game and drill in practice.”
The two teams are near facsimiles of one another with the special teams for both being similar, though Norwich holds a slight advantage over New Hamburg in both. The Merchants also have a bit more offensive punch, but there’s no clear decisive advantage either team holds over the other. Wilkins said whichever team comes out more prepared with the better effort will likely come out on top.
“Bring a good effort every night,” he said of what his team has to do to get to the second round. “We won’t have every line going every night, but if we get a consistent effort every night it’ll give us the chance to win. Special teams often wins playoff series, so our power play hasn’t been the greatest but we’ve done changes to create more opportunity. I’m hoping we’ll get more chances.”
With the series starting Friday in New Hamburg, the two team’s also have the advantage of playing one another twice in the last two weeks and three times in the last six weeks.
“Both teams got a feel for the other with those recent games. We hadn’t played each other in awhile, so we each got a read on one another,” Wilkins said of the recent games. “If we can get opportunities and execute - it’ll be a tough series either way - but if our penalty killing remains strong and we get a few power play goals, I think we’ll be hard to beat. Our goaltending’s been really outstanding and they’re giving us a chance to win every night.
“Our team’s faced a lot of challenges, so I think we’ll be a tough team to beat.”
GAME 1: Norwich at New Hamburg - Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m.
GAME 2: New Hamburg at Norwich - Feb. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
GAME 3: Norwich at New Hamburg - Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m.
GAME 4: New Hamburg at Norwich - Feb. 12 at 2 p.m.
GAME 5: Norwich at New Hamburg - Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m.
GAME 6: New Hamburg at Norwich - Feb. 17 at 8 p.m.
GAME 7: Norwich at New Hamburg - Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m.
The New Hamburg Firebirds won the regular season series by winning three of five games against Norwich.
New Hamburg opened the season meetings with a 5-3 Sept. 23 win after they had three goals in the first then two in the final six minutes of the third to win as Colin Martin had two goals. The Merchants took the next game 3-2 Nov. 5 with Norwich having goals from three different players. New Hamburg won an offensive laden Dec. 16 game 9-6 at home. James Thorpe had four goals for New Hamburg.
In their Jan. 20 game, Norwich won 6-4 with three second period goals with Derek Slaght and Jordan Gillis each scoring twice. New Hamburg won the final regular season game for both teams in the game that decided home ice in the first round. The Firebirds won 3-2 with all goals coming in the first period.
SERIES OF EQUALS
The Merchants and Firebirds might be the two most similar teams in the PJHL’s Doherty Division.
They each finished with identical records of 22-18 - New Hamburg had the tiebreaker after they won the season series - and have met six out of the last seven playoffs.
In their five games against one another, New Hamburg outscored Norwich 23-20 but four of their games were decided by two goals or less. The shot total over those five games were narrowly in New Hamburg’s favour 157 to 141 and had five power play goals to Norwich’s two.
They were mostly the same on the power play, with Norwich at a 13.94 per cent success rate for 12th in the division and New Hamburg 8.65 per cent at 14th. The Merchants have a slightly better penalty kill at 86.67 per cent for fifth in the division and the Firebirds are eighth at 85.88 per cent.
NORWICH HOPING OFFENCE CONTINUES
Norwich enters the playoffs having won nine of their last 11 games. In that stretch, they outscored opponents 54 to 35 and won both by outscoring other teams and winning the one or two goal games. There’s no better time of the season to get on a hot streak and the Merchants enter the playoffs as the second hottest team in the division.
Norwich was also one of the better offensive teams in the league, scoring 181 goals for an average of 4.5 a game for fourth best in the division. The Merchants had five forwards - Ray Munro, Blake Pow, Jordan Gillis, Derek Slaght and Brett Parsons with Brandon Velda only two points short of joining - that posted a point or more per game. Norwich has a clear advantage between the two teams top six forwards, so if Norwich is going to win they’ll have to avoid being shutdown by the Firebirds checking lines and defence.
FIREBIRDS NEED TO WIN SPECIAL TEAMS MATCH UPS
In a series where both teams match up so well, for New Hamburg to get past Norwich they’ll have to rely on all aspects of their roster. In the past, their top line has been among the best in Junior C, but as players graduate from the junior level New Hamburg’s had more of a scoring by committee approach. In each of their wins over Norwich this season, the Firebirds were able to count on one or two different players each game to get past the Merchants. With Norwich having a slightly better offence and forward units, if New Hamburg can outscore the Merchants second, third and fourth lines while also shutting down Norwich’s power play they’ll find themselves in the second round. If Norwich’s offence gets loose or their power play comes to life, it could be a short series.