With a narrow 6-5 victory over Burford and an 11-4 blowout loss to Norwich, the Wellesley Applejacks concluded their regular season last weekend with the inconsistency that has plagued the squad all year.At 13-27-0 the Jacks finished eighth (ahead of only the winless Delhi Travellers) in the Midwestern Junior C standings, good enough for the last playoff spot and a date with the top-ranked Ayr Centennials (32-8-0) in the first round of the playoffs, which began Thursday at the North Dumfries Community Complex.
Dominated by the Centennials during the season – winless in their five matchups including a 9-1 drubbing Jan. 22 – the Jacks will need to bring a total team effort if they’re going to have any chance of slowing down the league’s top unit, head coach Tim Robb said.
“We’re going to be working on everything,” he said, noting the team only had time for one practice before the series opener. “We’re working on our power play, our defensive zone, our forecheck; all the things we need to be successful.”
Having allowed an average of nearly seven goals against Ayr during the regular season (34-12 cumulative score in their five meetings), the Jacks will need to improve defensively, Robb added.
“The biggest thing is you have to keep them close, so anything we can do to stifle their offense and slow them down will be keys to our success. It’s just a matter of playing good team defence and capitalizing when you get opportunities. You can’t be loose on defence or they’re going to hurt you.”
For a young group that has struggled to find consistency over the past five months, it won’t be easy.
That inconsistency was on display as the Jacks split their final weekend of regular season play.
Things got off to a good start, as the Jacks edged the Bulldogs 6-5 Jan. 30 on the road.
“We played a very good system,” Robb explained. “I think we really frustrated Burford because they had a hard time getting the puck out of their end for the first two periods, and we capitalized because of it.”
The home side opened the scoring midway through the first, but Applejack Matt Schieck quickly tied things up on the power play (Tyler Seguin, Parker Wood).
The Bulldogs regained the lead shortly after, but were followed up by a trio of Wellesley goals to close out the frame, scored by Schieck (Justin Plant, Wood), Paul Morra (Hayden Stewart, Justin Lebold) and Alex Uttley (Reid Denstedt).
It was all Jacks in the second, as Cal Jefferies (Jake Wilkinson, Morra) and Seguin (Stewart) found the back of the net to make it 6-2.
The Bulldogs scored three in the third to make it a one goal game, but they couldn’t dig themselves all the way out of the hole.
With three power play goals and another that came just seconds after a Burford penalty had expired, the Jacks special teams were on fire, Robb said.
The Jacks also had a real short bench, with just four defencemen and three forward lines on hand due to a rash of illness, Robb added.
That may have led to some tired legs the following night at home against the Norwich Merchants, where the Jacks started out strong but ran out of gas in an 11-4 defeat.
“We played very well in the first period and it was a really good hockey game,” Robb said. “We kept the score 3-2 and we had a number of solid scoring chances in that first period that we just couldn’t capitalize on.”
The Merchants scored the game’s first two goals and were followed by markers off the sticks of Seguin (Schieck) and Sean McEwan (Wilkinson, Jefferies).
The visitors regained the lead heading into the second, and that’s when things started to go sideways for the Jacks.
The Merchants scored five unanswered in the middle frame, including three power play goals.
After the game, Robb was not happy with the officiating.
“The referees stepped in with a number of questionable calls that started at the end of the first period and continued well into the second. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such poor officiating in all my years of coaching. It clearly dictated the outcome of the game.”
Norwich piled on another three goals to start the third, putting the game out of reach.
Wilkinson (Jefferies, Lebold) and Uttley (Schieck, Stewart) notched a pair of inconsequential goals to wrap things up.
While the rout was a tough way to end the season, Robb is working hard to get the group’s spirits up in the lead up to the playoffs.
“We have to stay positive and we have to work hard; we have to be the hardest working team. If we can work hard for the full 60 minutes we can still lose games and be successful. It’s when you don’t put in your best effort for the whole game that things will come out and bite you.”
The playoffs began Thursday evening in Ayr and will continue back in Wellesley Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The Jacks will head back on the road tomorrow night for a 7:30 p.m. puck drop, with game four set for Wednesday evening at home.
The series is a best-of-seven, with the first team to win four games advancing to the second round.
Wrapping up the regular season, Cal Jefferies led the team in scoring with 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) and goalie Tim Bester finished the year with a .903 save percentage and a 3.80 goals against average.