Before Christmas, they sat at the top of the GOJHL standings. After Christmas, with key players in the infirmary and a young, untested team left on the ice, they fell behind. In the first two games of the playoffs, they were neck-in-neck with their opponents. But on Wednesday night the Elmira Sugar Kings skated off the ice and said goodbye to their 2012-2013 season after dropping a 4-0 decision and falling in six games to the Cambridge Winter Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.
It may not have turned out the way he would have liked, but head coach Dean DeSilva was full of praise for his team after Wednesday’s game.
“I’ve never been around a group of young men that I’m more proud of,” said DeSilva. “Honestly, at the start of the year, with us being so young, we were hoping it would be about a .500 hockey club. Had we not run into the injuries in January that we ran into, we were well over that. We would have been battling for the top team of the league.”But the coach was careful to keep things in perspective. “That happens, that’s part of the game, and these guys just battled so hard.”
Down three games to two going into Wednesday’s game, the Kings weren’t able to keep the momentum going after the previous night’s win. The loss ended something of a seesaw battle in the playoffs, along with the team’s season.
On Cambridge ice last Saturday, the Kings scored the first goal of the game, with Brodie Whitehead (assists: Matt Harding, Rob Gohli) burying the puck at 1:33. Two more goals came in the second period, by Brady Campbell (Brandon Stewart, Jake Weidner) at 10:25 and Weidner (Cash Seraphim) at 12:44. But while Cambridge fell behind with one goal in the first period and one in the second, a three-goal surge in the third period gave the Hawks a decisive 5-3 victory.
Back on home ice on Sunday night, the Kings failed to feel the hometown advantage. Both of the home team’s goals came from Weidner (each time assisted by Stewart and Campbell), scoring at 14:22 in the first period and 17:26 in the second. But after a slow start, the Hawks came on strong, scoring twice in the second period and twice in the third, and raising the score to 4-2.
Frustratingly for the Kings, the Elmira team dramatically out-shot their Cambridge rivals on Sunday, with 54 shots on net versus Cambridge’s 37.
A glimmer of hope arrived in Cambridge on Tuesday night, when the Kings turned things around for long enough to administer a 5-1 beating to their rivals. Three goals in rapid succession in the first period set the tone: Weidner (Campbell) at 10:11, Cass Frey (Matt Harding) at 12:08, and Campbell (Weidner) at 13:41. The Hawks scored their first and only goal 43 seconds into the second period, but Campbell (Weidner) countered at 14:24, and Frey (Brodie Whitehead) scored one last goal at 17:53 in the third period – on an empty net, to add insult to injury.
But it all fell apart on home ice on Wednesday, in a loss that was practically the mirror image of Tuesday night’s victory. In the first period, the Winter Hawks started strong, landing three goals and establishing a daunting lead before the Olympia was even warmed up. By the end of the second period, the score had risen to 4-0 for the visitors.
The Kings fought hard for a late rally, but by the time the audience at the Woolwich Memorial Centre rose to give the departing teams a standing ovation, nobody had changed the score.
“It’s tough getting that far down, it’s tough getting down that early,” said DeSilva. “But that’s part of the game. Cambridge is a very good hockey club; they’ve got a lot of depth, and we just couldn’t compete with that depth in the series right now.”
Looking ahead to 2013-2014, DeSilva sees some areas where the coaching staff could improve.
“We pushed these guys very, very hard. But I think that rather than trying to throw too much at them, it should be ‘less is more.’ By that, I mean: let’s get very, very good at certain areas, and focus on that throughout the year.”
But for the most part, DeSilva ended the season with praise for his young team. “When I see guys like Jake Weidner and Brady Campbell and Brandon Stewart – three 20-year-olds that were in the lineup tonight – battling hard and blocking shots and giving everything they had, that’s just incredible,” said DeSilva.
“Dave Lock, the assistant coach, said to them in the room: ‘Guys, if you gave your all, you’ve got nothing to hang your head about’ … All we ask of the players is: come to the rink, work hard, and give your all.”