It’s now a best-of-three series as Wellesley and Norwich battle this weekend to see who’ll move on
A Wellesley win Wednesday night evened things up in what has thus far been a seesaw battle in the first round of the Midwestern Junior C playoffs.
Four games into the first round of playoffs, the Wellesley Applejacks and the Norwich Merchants are in a dead heat. Evenly matched (fifth- and fourth-place in the Junior C league respectively), the teams spent the last week struggling to ride momentum, alternating wins and losses in equal measure.
If there’s another pattern, it’s that the team that scores more than one goal wins, as the alternating victories have been 6-1, 3-1, 4-0 and 4-1.
This weekend’s games will be a real test for the Jacks, whose 2-2 performance has been consistent with their hit-and-miss record during the regular season.
Head coach Rob Way says the team has reason to be optimistic. “We know that if we bring our A-plus game and compete hard with them, we can beat them; you just can’t take a shift off.”
He expects the Merchants will give nothing away in the series.
“They’re very deep, and they’ve got three or four lines that can all hit and play the body hard. You just have to be prepared for that every shift.”
On Norwich ice February 7, the Jacks got off to a good start with a goal by Brett MacDonald (assist: Mckenzie Carter) at 13:51, but they couldn’t catch a break after that. Norwich scored once in the first period, dominated the second with four goals, and scored again in the third, giving the Jacks a troubling 6-1 loss.
It was a brighter outcome the next day at the Wellesley arena. The teams spent most of the game tied – Devon Wagner (Taylor Doering) scored first for Wellesley in 1:46, and Norwich countered at 13:37 – but the Jacks pulled ahead in the third period, with a goal by Blake Hetherington at 2:29. Luke Rose pushed the score to 3-1 with a shot on an empty net at 18:30.
The victory game despite intense opposition: the Merchants actually outshot the Jacks 44-26.
“We just played like we needed to play on Saturday night. The first game, we didn’t do that,” said Way.
But the momentum was short-lived: back in Norwich on Sunday, the Jacks were unable to score a single goal against their opponents. The Merchants took a strong lead with two goals in the first period, added another two in the second, and held the Jacks off in the third.
“A bunch of things just didn’t give us the same physical presence in the game,” said Way. “We played reasonably well, but we ran into a couple of injuries, and we lost one of our top defensemen who works for a snow removal company – he got called into work. … They took it to us physically.”
The team returned to form on home ice Wednesday, drawing even with a 4-1 win, and while Norwich outshot Wellesley 48-27, the Jacks were able to capitalize on their chances. MacDonald (Stoody, Wagner) and Stoody (Wagner, MacDonald) led the way with goals in the first period, and Wagner (MacDonald) landed a third 3:11 in the second period. The Merchants managed a goal of their own at 9:16 in the third period, but Stoody (Wagner, Lebold) racked up one more for Wellesley at 15:32.
Despite the mixed results, Way says that playing the same team repeatedly in a short span of time has its advantages.
“Both teams are making adjustments all the time because you see the team, and then at the end of the game you’re thinking about the kind of adjustments you have to make for the next game. They’re doing the same thing.”
In a tight, short series, adjustments have to be made on the fly.
“If you play somebody once and you don’t play them again for three weeks, you don’t make those kinds of adjustments to that degree. Sure, you might make a couple, but it’s not to that level,” he said.
“We already knew what they were like because we played them so often. They’ve got one line that’s really strong, good scorers, fast; they’ve got good size, and they’re physical. We’ve got to really fight hard to compete with their physicality, and we have to shut down their top line.”
After game five in Norwich Friday night, the two teams head back to Wellesley Saturday night for a 7:30 p.m. match. If needed, a seventh and final game will be played the following afternoon in Norwich.