The Woodstock Navy Vets won their Provincial Junior Hockey League Doherty Division quarter-final series against the Norwich Merchants
The Woodstock Navy Vets salute the crowd following their series win against the Norwich Merchants in Woodstock, Ont. on Saturday February 10, 2018 at Southwood arena. The Vets won 3-2 in double overtime to advance to the semifinals and earned their first playoff series win since 2009. Greg Colgan/Woodstock Sentinel-Review/Postmedia Network
When the puck hit the back of the Norwich Merchants net in double overtime, nearly a decade of playoff history was erased for the Woodstock Navy Vets.
It’d been 2009 since the Vets had won a playoff series and recent years had them come close to the second round, but never quite get over the hill to the divisional semifinals.
The Vets clinched their spot to the second round when Austin Sine scored the series winning goal at 3:39 in double overtime for a 3-2 win and 4-1 series victory.
“Just don’t miss it,” Sine said of what he was thinking when he got the puck in front before scoring the winning goal. “I was in my office in front of the net and got the puck. That’s all I remember.”
Sine batted the puck in when he was left alone in front of the Merchants net and took a cross ice pass through the Merchants crease from Justin Elms.
“I can’t remember how I got the puck. I just had it and I knew Siner was on net and put it across crease,” Elms said of the overtime winner.
The goal sealed the two teams fates, with Woodstock advancing and Norwich’s season ending. For Woodstock, it sees them head to the semifinals where they wait for the Tavistock Braves and New Hamburg Firebirds series to complete to find their next matchup.
While Woodstock finished with a 22-point advantage over Norwich and won the season series 4-1 in the regular season, the two teams were evenly matched. Three games were decided in overtime and the other two by two goals.
There was no blowout and few moments that looked like either team was on the verge of having their season end, ultimately with the Vets securing three overtime wins to win the series.
“We’re proud of our guys. We stuck to our game and it worked,” Vets head coach Matt Paton said. “We won three overtime games that could’ve gone either way. We’re not content with just one series win… We want a long playoff run.
“I give credit to Norwich. They grinded us out and they’ve got a young talented team that’s well coached,” he added. “They made us better with that close of a series.”
Norwich opened the scoring in the second at 6:59 when Seth Lamoure scored with Sam Davies and Riley Monture getting assists. Woodstock tied the game when Elms notched a power play goal at 8:22. Chris Nauts and Kyle Walker had assists. The Navy Vets took a 2-1 lead when Kurtis Christo scored shorthanded when he beat Merchants goalie Tyler Gubesch over his right shoulder with a wrist shot. Cam Leslie and Austin Richardson had assists.
Following a timeout in the final minute and the goalie pulled, Norwich tied the game when DAn Gallagher scored in a goalmouth scrum with Blake Pow and Oliver Wieringa getting assists. After a scoreless first overtime, Sine netted the winner at 3:39 of the second overtime with Elms and Leslie getting assists.
Keaghan Brett earned the win for Woodstock, stopping 33 shots. Tyler Gubesch made 38 for Norwich.
The series win puts to a halt playoff futility in past seasons for the Vets, but it also signals their return to the division’s top teams.
From 2010 to 2014, the Navy Vets failed to post a winning season, settling for single digit wins. The past failures saw an organizational change shortly after the 2013 playoffs and the team was torn down to barebones with a focus on a youth movement and an influx of local players. The 2013-14 season saw them miss the playoffs, but a turnaround on the ice had began.
In subsequent years, the team showed potential with a lengthy winning streak in the 2014-15 year and hovering around .500 in 2015-16 and 2016-17, but playoff success was never generated.
In 2015 Woodstock held a 3-2 series lead against the Paris Mounties and 2-0 advantage in 2016, with the Mounties winning both. Last year saw the Wellesley Applejacks knock them out again in a six-game series.
“In my first year we won five games and didn’t make the playoffs. We had fifth and sixth place finishes and went out in the first round,” Elms, who was the first player signed after the franchise change in 2013, said. “It’s been tough on the guys and to finally get through to the second round everyone feels good.
“I think especially for guys who have been here awhile. We’ve gone out three years in a row and to be up in those series and have the other team come back, it was deflating,” he added. “To finally get past the first round, now everyone wants a big playoff run.”
For the Merchants, it’s a rare early playoff exit but also a glimpse of a potential future after the team went with a youth movement this season.
Long one of the more successful teams in Junior C, Norwich rejigged their roster to focus on younger players. While there were growing pains throughout the season, the playoff series rarely saw them look out of place. All five games were by two goals or less and three were decided in overtime.
“I said I was proud of them,” Merchants head coach Dave Smith said of his postgame message. “We’ve had a lot of change during the year. We had new guys come in, others leave and we worked through any issues. We’re proud of what we did. Our guys gave us everything they had and we could’ve won this series. The series could’ve gone either way. We got beat by a good hockey team that’s well coached. I wish them luck.
“The young guys came a long way. They work hard and that’s what I ask. We lost four guys (Brandon Velda, Brett Parsons, Riley Monture and Troy Lamoure) as overagers. I told them to be proud of what they’ve done. It’s a really good organization and be proud of their time with the Merchants,” Smith added. “It hurts, but someones got to win and someone has to lose.”
The Vets will now have the help of extra rest before the second round.
In the Doherty Division, the first round schedules series’ over the course of three weeks with following rounds going two weeks. The tighter timeframe means games are rarely more than three or four days apart.
“Playing a team like that’s very physical. We’re not 16 anymore. It can take a toll and games like those can be tough,” Sine said. “You play through a lot.”
“It works out well because we can regroup and get some practices to work on things and make some changes, so it’s huge to get time off,” Paton said. “A seven game series takes a lot out of you. To win in five is huge going forward.”
With one round behind them and the division soon to be narrowed down to four remaining teams, the Vets will look to continue their success in the next round. Following a 30 win season, the team’s first since 1996-97, and taking out their Oxford rivals, the Vets have put themselves in a place for postseason success.
“I’ve been saying all year they need to believe we’ve got a great group,” Paton said. “We got through the first round and it’s great for the guys who have been around a longtime, but we can’t be content with just the first round. We’ve got a good team with a shot at winning it.”
GAME 5 GLANCE
Woodstock Navy Vets 3
Norwich Merchants 2
Woodstock goals: Justin Elms, Kurtis Christo and Austin Sine
Norwich goals: Seth Lamoure and Dan Gallagher
GAME 4 GLANCE
Woodstock Navy Vets 7
Norwich Merchants 5
Woodstock goals: Kyle Walker (2), Matt Zilke (2), Dylan Wettlaufer, Troy Vandenbussche and Jared Prekup
Norwich goals: Blake Pow (2), Ryan Dayman, Simon Storoschuk and Oliver Wieringa