Sports

Norwich Merchants take first loss against Ayr Centennials in semifinals

By Greg Colgan, Sentinel-Review

Norwich Merchants forward Derek Slaght carries the ice in the New Hamburg Firebirds zone in their Provincial Junior Hockey League quarterfinal series. The Merchants are playing the defending Schmalz Cup champion Ayr Centennials in the second round.

Norwich Merchants forward Derek Slaght carries the ice in the New Hamburg Firebirds zone in their Provincial Junior Hockey League quarterfinal series. The Merchants are playing the defending Schmalz Cup champion Ayr Centennials in the second round.

If a team wants to make a deep playoff run, it will eventually be challenged by the best competition.

The Norwich Merchants face that challenge as they face the Provincial Junior Hockey League's top team in the Ayr Centennials in the second round of the Doherty Division playoffs. As of Friday morning, the Merchants had lost their first game, played Feb. 23, by a score of 7-1.

"We're up against a tough team and we all know the challenge we're up against. Every guy knows they need to bring their A game in order for us to put up a good series," Norwich head coach Brad Wilkins said in a phone interview. "I feel a lot of the guys are playing at a high confidence level, which is key for us to make sure we're executing when we get those chances."

The Centennials won the season series 4-1, but Norwich managed to win the very first meeting. That loss was only one of three Ayr suffered in the regular season. Ayr entered the series having won its past 22 games and not suffering a loss since Nov. 19.

Wilkins said their win over Ayr Sept. 30 can give them an added positive entering the series. More importantly, he also said Norwich has clicked at the right time, having got healthy in the final month of the regular season and been able to put together consistent line combinations the past six weeks. In their last 16 games, including the playoffs, they've posted a 13-3 record.

"It's important to focus on the games we were successful. It gives us extra confidence if they play and to execute on chances. It gives us the idea they're beatable and we've accomplished it before," he said. "We gave them a battle every game. Our team is showing we've been through a lot of challenges and we're heading in the right direction. They've really come together at the right time of the year."

Norwich won their first-round series over the New Hamburg Firebirds in five games and have been off since Feb. 13, while the Centennials completed their first round sweep of the Burford Bulldogs Feb. 11. The early part of series will likely see a feeling-out process for two teams that haven't been in a game for 10 or more days while facing new players, plans and line combinations since their last game more than two months ago.

The Merchants saw their power play click in the first round, working at a 17.24 per cent success rate after they scored five times on 29 chances. They also limited New Hamburg to three power-play goals on 28 chances for an 89.28 per cent mark, while also adding two shorthanded goals of their own.

Ayr didn't allow a Burford power-play goal in 17 chances and went 3-for-19 in their series.

"It's going to be key to our success," Wilkins said of special teams. "If we challenge them on the penalty kill, for us it'll be the factor of us winning or losing. If we execute on both the power play and penalty kill, it'll give us chances to win games.

"We changed a few things on the power play and got guys back from injuries. We've been able to move guys into different positions and it's been good for us. We finally have all our guys back and I'm confident we can put up some power play goals."

After a rare first round playoff exit last year - their earliest since the 1990s - Norwich dispatched the New Hamburg in five games to make the semifinals.

"They've got a lot of passion, pride and history," Wilkins said of the Merchants organization. "Winning that first series (against New Hamburg) and shaking hands with the executive afterwards really hit home to us as coaches and the players what it means to the township, especially going into the 50th anniversary. They give us a lot of support."

"We need to step up our level of play if we're going to challenge Ayr," Wilkins said. "They'll have to dig deep and make sure they're prepared to play mentally and physically and leave it all out on the ice."

SERIES GLANCE

Game 1 - Norwich Merchants (1) at Ayr Centennials (7) - Feb. 23

Game 2 - Norwich Merchants vs. Ayr Centennials - Feb. 24 at 8 p.m.

Game 3 - Norwich Merchants at Ayr Centennials - Feb. 26 at 1:30 p.m.

Game 4 - Norwich Merchants vs. Ayr Centennials - Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m.

Game 5 - Norwich Merchants at Ayr Centennials - March 2 at 7:30 p.m.

Game 6 - Norwich Merchants vs. Ayr Centennials - March 3 at 8 p.m.

Game 7 - Norwich Merchants at Ayr Centennials - March 5 at 1:30 p.m.